How Farming Has Been Loved to Death

Reforming farm subsidies won’t do any good – we must scrap them

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th March 1997.

For years, environmentalists have been calling for a reform of farm subsidies. Though, as taxpayers and consumers, ordinary people in Britain have been reluctantly donating £10 billion a year to British farmers, our money has delivered few of the benefits we might have hoped for. The great semi-natural habitats that farming once sustained in Britain have all but disappeared in the fifty years since farm subsidies began. Farm labour has declined from a million workers in 1939 to 120,000 today, and is still falling by 12 per cent a year. We have been shut out of the countryside and poisoned with prions and pesticide residues.

What’s needed, we reformers have argued, is a massive re-orientation of subsidies towards benign land and labour management. We have advocated the transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds from intensive agriculture into Countryside Stewardship and Environmentally Sensitive Area schemes. We’ve suggested that subsidies should be conditional upon the provision of access and farm employment. Properly directed, they could be used to restore the damage intensive farming has done.

We could not have been more wrong. In The Killing of the Countryside, published today, Graham Harvey – of all unlikely revolutionaries the Agricultural Story Editor of the Archers – shows that our rural crisis is the result not of the misdirection of subsidies, but of the principle of subsidized agriculture itself. Farming will only cease to deliver ruination when we get rid of farm support.

When, in 1947, the government decided to reward the farmers who got us through the war and to secure Britain’s food supplies by encouraging them to invest in new equipment, scarcely anyone demurred. With their robust response to the naval blockade, British farmers had earned all the support we could give them.

Had Attlee’s government stopped for a moment to consider what it was doing, it might have perceived a certain confusion of aims. Farmers had fed us during the war by responding to a clear price signal: food shortages meant higher prices, which encouraged them to produce more. They cashed in their investment in soil fertility, and raised their output of arable crops. The market mechanism, in other words, was working. By subsidizing farmers, the government would ensure that it ceased to do so.

To encourage production, the government threw its money not at the farmers themselves, but at farm output: the more the farmers produced, in other words, the more subsidies they received. The policy could scarcely have been better designed to destroy them.

Rising crop values soon translated into rising land value. Manufacturers of the chemicals and new equipment the subsidies enabled farmers to buy raised their prices to match farm incomes, and both proprietors and tenant farmers found themselves constrained to produce ever more in order to meet their escalating costs.

Big farmers began to swallow smaller ones. Entrants were discouraged by the price of land, and a new breed of ruthless absentee investors and industrial-scale farmers began to emerge. Britain’s accession to the EEC provided them with even better opportunities.

Increasing production year on year means overcoming the constraints imposed by biological rates of return. You must seek out and plough up every slow-growing corner of your land, obliterating such unprofitable encumbrances as wildflower meadows, hedgerows, ponds and heaths. You must replace farm labour with machinery and soil fertility and natural predators with chemicals. All this, of course, is expensive, but these are exactly the sort of “improvements” that subsidies are designed to finance.

Grants for environmentally and socially-responsible management, in other words, merely use taxpayers’ money to try to persuade farmers not to do what they couldn’t have done without taxpayers’ money. Conservation becomes an expensive exercise. To stop a farmer from destroying a Site of Special Scientific Interest, we must compensate him both for production foregone and for the value of the grants he might have received. Without the incentive provided by subsidies, it’s unlikely that he’d have wanted to destroy it in the first place.

The decline in food quality is also an artefact of farm support. Farmers selling to bureaucrats, rather than the local people that pre-war producers supplied, could not give a fig for the quality of their produce, just as long as they turn out enough of it. Through the quota and intervention systems, the poorest people in Britain are paying some of the richest to poison them. By encouraging farmers to become dependent upon imported chemicals and machinery, we have managed, moreover, to render ourselves more vulnerable to the effects of an enemy blockade.

We now have, in other words, the long-sought mechanism for initiating real landscape and wildlife conservation, for improvements in food quality, a reduction of farm size and an increase in farm labour. It’s called – and I blush to my anti-libertarian roots to admit it – a free market in agricultural produce.