Ivan Holmes: Why I feel guilty about how we farm

By buying the feed and not demanding to know its source, I made my herbivorous cattle into cannibals
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The Independent Online

Even before the present outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, 20,000 people a year were leaving farming. The average age of farmers has been creeping up year by year, as farmers' sons have been encouraged by their fathers to seek a career elsewhere. Every farmer knows another - a colleague, friend or relation - who has committed suicide: often strong men who could not contemplate the defeat of giving up, but equally could no longer bear the burden of carrying on. This is an industry in serious decline. It is hard to imagine morale in farming being lower.

Even before the present outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, 20,000 people a year were leaving farming. The average age of farmers has been creeping up year by year, as farmers' sons have been encouraged by their fathers to seek a career elsewhere. Every farmer knows another - a colleague, friend or relation - who has committed suicide: often strong men who could not contemplate the defeat of giving up, but equally could no longer bear the burden of carrying on. This is an industry in serious decline. It is hard to imagine morale in farming being lower.

And then along comes foot-and-mouth. The effect is strange. Although farmers are deeply worried, I have seen signs of the tension lifting from their faces. The disease can be beaten. It is a powerful enemy, but we know it from old. It has a physical form, and while its foot soldiers are beyond number and its capacity for harm beyond imagination, it will follow predictable rules of warfare. In its wake may lie hundreds of thousands of smouldering, slaughtered livestock, thousands of farms, silent and ruined, billions of pounds lost to the industry and the taxpayer, but it is an enemy that can be fought and beaten.

But there is another disease, which has no physical form, and which we have not met before. This one came in the hours of darkness. It was born from a diabolical marriage of greed and weakness, from a government and industry obsessed with profit, and from consumers obsessed with cost. And I pulled the trigger. By buying the feed and accepting a declaration of protein without demanding to know its source, I made my herbivorous cattle into cannibals. For those who have borne the terrible cost of this, I am truly sorry. The least they have a right to expect is that lessons have been well learnt.

It is ironic that the growing debate on agricultural reform is fuelled by the foot-and-mouth outbreak. For the rural idyll recommended by some would have had no effect in guarding against foot-and-mouth. But everyone would agree, and most of all farmers, that it is high time for reform. It is time for farmers to stop complaining about the impossible situation we find ourselves in and to grasp this opportunity to reshape agriculture into a more environment-friendly and consumer-friendly structure that will provide a decent living for farmers and a future for our children. But the change must come from farmers, or it will be as disastrous as most previous attempts at agricultural reform.

Few would deny that farming responded magnificently to the post-war call for a cheap and plentiful supply of home-produced food. In the Seventies farming was pushed farther and faster in the same direction. When we joined the EEC in 1973, and hence the Common Agricultural Policy, many grants became available. Small dairy units were paid to close; large ones were grant-aided to modernise. There were grants for buying tractors, draining bogs, ripping out walls and hedges. To qualify, all you had to have was a four-year business plan to modernise and, specifically, to increase economic output per labour unit. This policy, which was so successful, is the one that is so hated by the public.

More recently, the Government signed up to trade treaties which entail open borders and world prices. This has seen our commodity prices fall by 30 to 50 per cent in the past five years. Consequently our economic output per labour unit is still too low. That means farms, tractors, fields, herds and flocks will get bigger still. A few previous generations of peasants were equally dissatisfied about reform imposed by government, notably at the time of the Corn Laws, the Enclosures and the Highland Clearances.

Where Brussels has failed, it is unlikely that Westminster will do better. This government, which is now talking so sympathetically and sincerely about organic farming and localised agriculture, is the same one that is so determined to open the Pandora's box of GM agriculture. The only way the Government can change agriculture is by grants, legislation, more bureaucracy and yet more tiers of civil servants checking up on us. Misery piled upon misery. We need less government, not more.

The closure of small, local abattoirs was an attempt to increase already high standards of food safety. The cost of keeping up with new regulation and financing the small army of white-coated public health inspectors was intolerable for them. Unfortunately, the cries to reopen them will not be heard. Like the local railways, they have gone for ever. Houses are now built there. In any case, who would work there? It is cold, hard, unpleasant work, the hours are long and the pay is low. It is unlikely they are waiting at home for their jobs back. So many things, once gone, are gone for ever.

It is often hard to believe that the policy-makers have ever set foot on a farm. We have the real world during the day, which very often amounts to keeping a cash-starved industry together with baling band, then after dark the kitchen table becomes the unreal and hypocritical world of subsidy forms, cattle passports and records of our every movement.

The countryside is about much more than food and farming. It is the green lung of the nation; it is the home of our wildlife and our natural heritage, a place for people to escape the stress and chaos of city life. If farming does not recognise this, any reform will fail. Equally, the Countryside Bill, which amounts to the urbanising of the countryside, will create huge strife. Only a generation ago British people had a great deal more personal communication with farming. Many people had a relative or friend who farmed. They visited and talked with farmers. Now visitors increasingly walk past farmers at work in the fields without a smile or acknowledgement.

Half of our children apparently do not know that potatoes come from the ground. Supermarket food is often unrecognisable from its state when it left the farm. Education about country life comes from television documentaries and teachers' packs, usually made or written by urban people. The whole world is an expert. People increasingly complain to Maff or the RSPCA about farming practices; on occasion they are justified; but more often it is about cows being out in the rain. The image of farming is created by its detractors. Farmers fail to tell people that the majority of conservation work is planned, carried out and financed by farmers, that they are an important resource of country lore and tradition and that farmers do the job because they care about the countryside.

Like all good revolutions, things have to get really bad before they get better. Government, society and farmers need to do a lot of listening. But ultimately farmers themselves need to lead the revolution that is needed in the countryside, or it will founder. Farmers now must summon up the vision, passion and wisdom to deliver a future that will be better for country people, the environment, consumers and society. The next generation of farmers must not be disillusioned and cynical. And, maybe, farmers themselves will care enough to kick down the door of any manufacturer or government minister who refuses to divulge the contents of whatever they are selling.

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