• Graham Harvey

Slo-mo catastrophe

Governments come and governments go. Empires crumble. Dictators rise and fall. Divisive walls collapse. But through it all toxic, wildlife-hostile, environmentally-damaging agriculture rolls on from age to age, seemingly beyond all rationality and human control. Defiant marker of invincibility from Big Oil.

I came across an article I wrote back in the early 1980s. At the time I was working as a freelance farming journalist, supplying news and features to trade papers like Farmers Weekly. This one was different. It was one of a series of in-depth pieces I'd written for New Scientist magazine, and it didn't go down well with my regular employers. They told me if I carried on 'knocking the industry', as they put it, I could kiss goodbye to any more commissions from them.

The story I told in that controversial feature was how the new-style system of arable farming – funded with the aid of generous Common Market (EU) subsidies – was destroying wildlife on an industrial scale. Rather like an alien species it had displaced the balanced and sustainable mixed farm which had fed Britain for more than two centuries. Gone were the fertility-building pastures and grazing animals, the features that gave our countryside its chequer-board field pattern of beauty and diversity. In its place came endless monocultures, mostly of winter wheat and oilseed rape.

Without fertility-building pastures it was a system that could only be run with heavy inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Farming had changed from a process of ecosystem management to one of endless chemical warfare. By the early 1980s – around 10 years after we joined the Common Market – it was already inflicting severe damage on wildlife and habitats. What's more, the whole destructive process was being driven with taxpayers' money via generous EU subsidies.

Here's what I wrote in that New Scientist article, dated September, 1982:

UK taxpayers have spent heavily on agricultural support since the country joined the EEC (EU). They have not had value for money. Community taxes have been used to hold the prices of farm products at levels higher than is necessary for efficient food production. The result has been the needless intensification of agriculture on marginal land, and the wide-scale destruction of wildlife habitats in the production of unwanted food. Having subsidised the destruction of their own countryside, taxpayers are called upon to underwrite the costly dumping of food surpluses…'

Today it's clear the havoc caused by chemical farming has gone way beyond wildlife and habitats. Soils have been stripped of 'organic matter' – the living component – releasing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis. Water courses are polluted with nitrate fertilisers. Our everyday foods are contaminated with pesticide residues. In the US damages claims against the makers of the world's most widely-used weedkiller, glyphosate – said to cause non-Hodgkins lymphoma - may even bust the company.

Despite the destruction, the disastrous system continues. Driving along the A303 across Salisbury Plain in mid June I pass mile after mile of cropland with the characteristic 'tramlines', the wheel marks that show the crop sprayer has crossed the land multiple times dispensing its toxic cargo. In the early evening stillness I even see a sprayer at work.

History will surely judge industrial agriculture to have been one of the worst administrative failures in human history. There's growing evidence that an alternative system called 'regenerative agriculture' – an enhanced version of traditional mixed farming – is well able to produce all the food we need while maintaining soil fertility and protecting nature and the planet. Proof that we never needed to have embarked on our half century of landscape and environmental destruction.

Ironically this year of Brexit is the year the EU has announced a total change of direction in farm policy, promising to promote family farms and sustainable agriculture. For all his talk about a 'green recovery' there's no evidence that Boris gets it yet.

So who's to blame for this national catastrophe? In once sense we all are for taking too little interest in the way our food is grown. Governments, obviously. For decades they've been chiefly interested in clawing back taxpayers' money from Brussels without regard for where it ends up. As it happens it's mostly been used to wreck the British countryside. Clearly farmers must share responsibility, especially their leaders who have been so influential in shaping agricultural policy.

The media must also shoulder blame. They've failed to report the damage and destruction, or even recognise that the way we run the countryside is a political issue. The BBC, our chief public broadcaster, has been especially negligent. When I was writing my New Scientist feature, the corporation was uncritically promoting chemical agriculture in its farming programmes.

I'd also have to give a special mention to the wildlife and environmental groups. They've known for decades what's been going on. Yet they've been unwilling to take on either the farming lobby or government. No doubt they'll say they've been quietly lobbying behind the scenes. Maybe. But if they'd publicly and loudly denounced the dreadful system, it's difficult to see how it could have survived. My guess is they decided they could do rather nicely building up their nature reserves with the aid of government and EU grants. This was the price of their silence.

Well they can't ignore the issue any longer. None of us can. The threat to nature and the planet is a threat to us all. The Government is currently drawing up plans for their post-Brexit agriculture and environment policies. Sadly there's no indication they'll be anywhere near tough enough to save nature, our food or our countryside. So here's my message to Boris. In my next piece I'll outline a simple policy measure that will revitalise rural Britain and win near universal support from the British public. And it'll be yours for free!

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