Open Government Snaps Shut

How the Ministry of Agriculture tried to silence me

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th December 1999.

A few weeks ago I used this column to argue that the ministry of agriculture was institutionally corrupt. It had been captured, I suggested, by agro-industrialists and chemicals companies, with the result that it had chosen to help large farmers while eliminating small ones. While negotiating the new Common Agricultural Policy, the ministry boasted, it had “fought hard – and successfully” to stop subsidy cuts being “targeted towards larger farms.” It would, it had proposed, do precisely as the big businessmen dominating the National Farmers’ Union had suggested, buying existing small farmers into retirement and discouraging new ones from entering the market. The only future it envisaged for small farms was for “domestic or recreational uses”.

I had challenged these positions during meetings of the “Rural Sounding Board”, an informal committee convened by MAFF and the environment department to canvass opinion for the rural white paper. The ministers had claimed that they wanted to hear a wide range of views, which, I assumed, included those with which they disagreed. So I was taken aback when a fax from the agriculture minister Elliot Morley arrived at Guardian, addressed not to the letters editor, but to myself. My article was “utterly outrageous and unacceptable,” it thundered. “Unless you publicly apologise and withdraw these allegations, Michael Meacher and I agree that there is no alternative but for you to withdraw from the Rural Sounding Board.”

So much for open government. The fax confirmed, I felt, two of the government’s central failings. The first is its limited understanding of freedom of speech. The second is its inability to grasp the idea that corruption is not confined to the receipt of brown envelopes. A ministry set up to do one thing (support all farmers, irrespective of size) but which, thanks to the pressure exerted by rich and powerful people, ends up doing another is clearly a ministry whose purpose has been corrupted.

This year the government has had ample opportunity to show whose agricultural interests it represents. In May, when the European Union opted to defend consumers from imports of hormone-contaminated beef, one country undermined the common position. The UK chose instead to defend the interests of the agrochemical companies producing the hormones. In June Britain blocked the attempt by France and Greece to introduce a moratorium on genetically engineered crops in the European Union. Over the last year, the government has allocated a grand total of £2.2 million for research into organic farming, for which consumer demand outstrips supply by 200 per cent, and £52 million for research into genetically engineered food, which no one wants to buy.

This week, the ministry of agriculture would like us to believe, it has started to redeem itself. For the next seven years, the agriculture secretary Nick Brown has announced, MAFF will spend an average of £230 million on paying farmers to protect landscapes and wildlife, convert to organic production and diversify their activities. This trebling of the budget for environmental measures “demonstrates” Mr Brown maintained, “the Government’s commitment to rural communities”.

Unfortunately it does just that. While some of the measures are unquestionably positive, providing desperately needed money for the conservation and restoration of rare habitats, the changes are likely to help accelerate the destruction of small farms, while supporting large ones. Much of the money will be released by cutting farmers’ production subsidies. Though large farms need much less state help than small ones, the same percentage, despite the pleas of smallholders, will be taken from all of them. As big farmers, with their managers and secretaries, are better placed to harvest the new subsidies than small ones, the changes promise to be deeply regressive.

The new money is just a fraction of that required to stop the orgy of state-subsidised vandalism which has destroyed nearly all our most important farm habitats over the last fifty years. The British taxpayer will now be spending £230m a year on protecting the farm environment, and some £5 billion on destroying it. The money allocated to organic farming is just one seventh of the subsidy required to achieve the Soil Association’s modest target of 30 per cent organic production by 2010. Most alarmingly, the whole package still relies on the big farmers’ repeatedly broken promise of self-regulation. There is nothing to prevent a landowner from destroying a habitat the taxpayer has spent a fortune to restore, the moment the price of sugarbeet rises.

The government’s problem is that the deal it negotiated during the European talks in March leaves it with little room for manoeuvre. Rather than insisting that the whole programme be radically changed, it concentrated instead on protecting British barley barons.

Yes Mr Morley, your ministry IS institutionally corrupt. Why else would you try to stamp out small farming in Britain? Why else would you continue to rob the poor in order to support the rich? And why else would you seek to silence your critics?