Whose Side Are They On?

Farmers should be campaigning for more expensive fuel

By George Monbiot. Written for Mail on Sunday, 12th November 2000, not published.

If you see any farmers on the fuel blockades next week, ask them what on earth they are doing. Campaigning for cheaper diesel could kill the very industry they claim to be defending.

At first sight, the farmers seem to have a case. Most of them use thousands of litres of diesel every year, for powering their tractors, driving around the farm and taking their goods to market. And nearly all of them are in serious financial trouble. But look more closely and you begin to wonder whose side they’re on.

Farmers themselves pay hardly any duty on the fuel they use. The “red diesel” they buy is taxed at just three pence a litre.

But more importantly, cheap fuel is destroying British farming. It has allowed farmers on the other side of the world to out-compete our own. If fuel cost more, frozen lamb from New Zealand would be prohibitively expensive in Britain. It would never make sense to ship potatoes in from Australia, or fly lettuces from Zimbabwe. Indeed, the fact that aircraft fuel isn’t taxed at all, with the result that it costs only 17 pence a litre, spells disaster for those brave souls trying to grow salad vegetables in Britain.

Cheap fuel hurts ours farmers because Britain, though its land is fertile, has several profound disadvantages as a farming nation. We are, of course, much smaller than many of the other countries in which crops are grown and animals are raised. Some of the farms in Brazil and the United States cover a million acres. There are “hog cities” in North Carolina with one million breeding sows. How on earth can our farmers hope to survive when thrown into direct competition with such economies of scale?

Plants in Britain grow more slowly than they do closer to the Equator. Land is generally more expensive, so is labour, and a strong pound encourages imports: superstores can buy many more french beans in Kenya for their pound than they can in Britain. The best hope for British farmers, as their “little red tractor” scheme suggests, is to encourage people to buy their produce close to home. But it’s an impossible struggle if cheap fuel allows foreign producers to undercut them, by keeping the price of imports low.

Even within Britain, low diesel prices hurt our farmers. They allow the superstores to shop around the country for the cheapest available produce, drive it to a central distribution centre, then truck it back out to their stores all over Britain. This enables them both to knock the price they pay down to the barest minimum, and to reduce the number of their suppliers. The big chains are currently attempting to cut down their growers to no more than three for each product: every company will buy from just three cauliflower producers, for example, or three apple farmers. If fuel were more expensive, the superstores would be forced to shop locally, and far more farmers would find themselves with a market.

If you think diesel in Britain costs too much, just look at how it is used. One supermarket chain lands its fish at Aberdeen and trucks it down to Cornwall to be smoked. Another drives milk from southern England to southern Scotland. One study found that some of the vegetables being sold in two superstores on the outskirts of Evesham in Worcestershire had been grown just one mile from the town. But before they reached the shelves they had been trucked first to Hereford, then to Dyfed, then to a distribution depot in Manchester, from which they were delivered back to Evesham.

The truth is that even before the concessions Gordon Brown made in his pre-Budget statement this week, trucking in Britain was too cheap. The government’s own consultants have shown that every 40 tonne lorry causes some £28,600 of damage to roads, the environment and human health every year. Yet it pays just £25,500 in fuel tax and excise duty. Trucking, in other words, has been subsidised, by all of us, through our taxes.

Part of the reason the lorry drivers are in such trouble is that there are now too many of them. Why? Because their own trade associations, one of which happens to be dominated by the superstores, have been lobbying the government to allow heavier lorries onto the road. When lorries get bigger, fewer are needed to shift the same amount of goods. Big trucks are bad for the environment, bad for the roads, bad for the truckers and bad for small business. But the superstores love them, so Britain has got them, whether we want them or not.

By caving into the demands of the farmers this week, Gordon Brown has helped them to undermine their own livelihoods. If I were a farmer, I’d be taking to the streets and demanding more expensive diesel, now.