27th May 2020


Why we can't rely on politicians to feed us



The Government is set on a course that will allow the worst foods of industrial agriculture – chlorinated chicken, hormone-treated beef, eggs from caged hens – to enter our supermarket chill cabinets. It's the price we're all being asked to pay to get a quick trade deal with Donald Trump's America.

For those of us who care about our countryside, our farm animals and our food standards, it comes as a real blow. Thanks to Tory hard-liners, we've been robbed of the environmental, food and animal welfare standards we were guaranteed as members of the EU. Instead we're to be herded onto Trump's fast-track to environmental breakdown, animal cruelty and human sickness. We're offered trade at the cost of turning our countryside into wasteland.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. The Tories have form in this area. I started working as a farming journalist around the time the Heath Government was taking Britain into the EU. Over the next three decades I watched as Europe's common agricultural policy (CAP) destroyed wildlife and habitats, contaminated rivers, and eroded away soils, simply to pile more wheat and dairy products onto the notorious food mountains that would later be sold off cheap to the Soviet Union.

In 1997 my book came out exposing the scandal, The Killing of the Countryside. It got a lot of favourable comment from people like Simon Jenkins, John Humphries and the author John Fowles, but nothing much changed. Tory ideologues quietly supported the devastation. To them it showed British farmers, who were on average bigger than those of other member states, were clawing back cash from Brussels. And that was to be applauded. It bothered them not one jot that the cash was being spent on rural destruction.  

Then, as now, rural Britain was sacrificed in the interests of ideology and finance. The victims were us, the citizens of these islands. It was our rights to healthy food and an unpolluted environment that were being bartered away. And then, as now, it was done under the cloak of patriotism. There's something particularly cynical this time around with the loss of our rights coming so soon after the celebration of VE Day and the price paid by an earlier generation in defence of those rights.

The good news is it doesn't really matter what governments do. We can use our power as consumers to ensure environmental and animal welfare standards don't drop, just as we made the supermarkets give up selling eggs from battery cages. In the end it doesn't matter what sort of junk the Government allows to be imported. If we don't buy it, the stuff will quickly disappear from the shelves and chill cabinets.

For the sake of our health, our country and our world, let's make organic the minimum food standard we choose. This would put an ethical foundation to the way the land is farmed to produce our food. Better still, let's look for the nutrient-enriched foods that come from farms where 'regenerative farming' is practised. This is a system that uses natural methods to boost soil fertility by increasing the carbon content. It's why I prefer to call it 'carbon farming.' Not only does it greatly increase the output of farmland, it fights climate change by removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


One of the first British farmers to use these methods was a hero of mine, George Henderson, whose wartime book The Farming Ladder became a runaway best-seller. In a later book he wrote: 'We have demonstrated a way of life open to anyone who can learn his trade, work hard, live simply, and above all adopt methods of farming where capital accumulates, not only in terms of wealth, but in  human happiness and the fertility of the soil.

'We believe the small farm, with a balanced system, is the economic unit which can go steadily on, in good times and in bad, and be far less dependent on outside conditions than the more specialised pig, poultry or dairy farm, or the large-scale mechanised unit.

'If the principles applied on our small farm for the past twenty-five years had been generally adopted on British farms, this country would now be practically independent of imported food, and the major political problem of the times –how to feed the people – would never have arisen.'

George Henderson wrote that in 1950. His message went unheeded by the politicians. Seventy years later it's clear he was precisely right. Britain's traditional small, mixed farms would feed the nation better and more efficiently than out present animal factories and poisoned monocultures. If the politicians can't yet see it, we'll have to change their minds with the food choices we make.