Death to the Small

The corrupt Ministry of Agriculture is deliberately wiping small farmers out

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd September 1999.

Every autumn for the last three years, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has released some tens of millions of pounds of emergency support for Britain’s small farmers, and assured them that it is doing everything in its power to help. And every year the same ministry has been devising new means of wiping them out. Consciously, deliberately, MAFF has engineered the collapse of British farming.

Price support for farming in Britain has always helped big business at the expense of small: rewarding the biggest and best-capitalised farmers by subsidising production, wiping out the smaller ones by raising the price of land and machinery. But by the early 1990s, the elimination of most of Britain’s farmers had become an intentional policy. When the European Commission sought to remodel the subsidy system in order to favour smaller farmers, the Conservative agriculture secretary John Gummer fought the reforms tooth and nail, and won. This year, the Common Agricultural Policy was re-negotiated. Once again, MAFF boasts, “The Government fought hard – and successfully – against the Commission’s proposal” that “the bulk of the subsidy cuts [should be] targeted towards larger farms.” But this was only the beginning of the Labour Government’s war against small producers.

European agriculture ministers have been granted powers to help people hoping to enter the industry. MAFF has decided not to exercise them, on the grounds that this would “retard the pace of restructuring” (meaning that it would stop British farms from getting bigger). While keeping younger small farmers out of the market, it is sending the older ones to the knackers’ yard: the agriculture secretary Nick Brown is setting aside money to buy small producers into early retirement, in order, his ministry says, to “facilitate restructuring”: their land will be snapped up by bigger operators. MAFF cheerfully predicts a continued decline in “the number of small … [and] medium sized farms” and the emergence of what “might be described as ‘ranches'”.

But as usual, rather than face the consequences of its actions, the Ministry for Amalgamating Fact and Fiction has chosen to lie. The shift towards bigger farms, it claims, reflects “farmers’ decisions in adapting to market circumstances.” It “would be alien to the tradition of this country” to “manipulate CAP production subsidies … in order to direct the industry’s structure”. Manipulating subsidies in order to direct the industry’s structure is a precise description of what MAFF has been doing for years.

MAFF’s social engineering has been pursued in the name of “efficiency” and “modernity”. But its result, ironically, is that farming is now one of the last economic sectors in Britain still largely dependent on high volume, low value production. This is the most senseless of all available strategies.

There are few British farm products which command international respect, but those which do, such as Stilton and Scotch whisky, owe their origins to small-scale, specialist production. If farming in Britain has a future, this is surely where it lies. Demand for organic food, for example, now outstrips supply by 200 per cent, and is growing at 30 per cent a year, but by eliminating smaller farms, MAFF is undermining our ability to respond. Instead, it is forcing these tiny islands to compete directly with the chemical deserts of Kansas, Iowa and Argentina: to enter a global mass market, in other words, in which we can only lose.

It is not hard to see why the ministry pursues these policies. Since 1947, it has been the willing plaything of agro-industrialists, represented by the National Farmers’ Union, and the chemical companies supplying them. Its research funds have been captured and co-opted. The government’s Homegrown Cereals Authority, for example, has consistently refused to fund any research into organic farming. Its chairman was previously Director General of the British Agrochemicals Association. Big farms using the minimum of labour have to deploy massive quantities of agrochemicals. Since 1973, while the number of farmers has fallen by 26 per cent and the number of farm labourers by 46 per cent, pesticide use in Britain has risen by 209 per cent. The environmental destruction and pesticide poisoning the ministry claims to lament is, like the obliteration of small farmers, the direct result of its own policies. The empty, blasted British countryside testifies to fifty years of institutional corruption.

This week’s rescue package is another clever and persuasive con-trick. The government is spending £150 million to buy political capital and save small farmers from the crisis it has created, and spending billions more to wipe them out.

Nick Brown has ensured that his ministry remains as corrupt as it has ever been. He extends a hand to small farmers, only to push them further into the mess he has made for them.