The War Against Small Farms

By appointing Lord Haskins to oversee “rural recovery”, the British government will complete the destruction of the countryside

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 7th August 2001

The global war against the peasantry has been prosecuted with equal vigour by state communists and corporate capitalists. Both have sought to stamp out economically independent people. Both have claimed that, by centralising the supply and distribution of food, they can guarantee the world against famine. And both have engineered starvation.

Stalin created famines while seeking total political power. Big business creates famines while seeking total economic power. Land used by peasants to grow food for the developing world is seized and used to grow animal feed for Britain and America. Superstores steal water from Kenyan nomads to grow lettuces for consumers with hard currency. Biotech firms prevent plants from reproducing, so they can patent growth and monopolise the food chain.

While yields of single crops tend to be higher on large farms, recent studies have shown that the total output per hectare on small ones is several times greater, as peasants grow a wider variety of crops, making much better use of natural resources. Yet, in the name of efficiency, the most efficent farmers must be destroyed. A century of ethnic cleansing has been accompanied by a century of economic cleansing. Peasant farmers are as welcome in the modern economy as the Kurdish language is in the Turkish parliament.

But somehow almost half the world’s population has resisted its proletarianisation. Even in Britain, where the social re-engineering of the countryside began earlier than anywhere else, a few tens of thousands of the brave and the barking still cling to economic life. So ever more effective means are found to wipe them out.

On Sunday, the government unveiled its latest weapon in the war against the peasantry. It has appointed Lord Haskins as its “rural recovery co-ordinator”, who will oversee the re-building of the countryside’s economy after the foot and mouth crisis. Putting Lord Haskins in charge of rural recovery is like putting Lord Tebbitt in charge of race relations.

Haskins has made no secret of his views about farming in Britain. He would like to “shake out” the industry, eliminating small farms and concentrating production in the hands a few giant agro-industrialists. He pours scorn on organic farming and has called for the widespread deployment of GM crops. He admires superstores and despises local markets. He wants to remove or diminish the laws protecting the environment. All this, he argues, will make farming more productive and lower the price of food.

Lord Haskins claims that he wants to reduce the prices farmers are paid in order to protect consumers and feed the poor. But the chairman of Northern Foods also has rather more immediate interests to consider. In May his company posted its usual hefty profits, but warned that its margins might be squeezed by the rising price of “raw materials”.

Take a look at the ingredients of this firm’s Goodfellas pizzas or Ski yoghurts or TV dinners, and see, minus the additives, how much more cheaply you could make these things yourself, despite the fact that your kitchen has no economies of scale, and you have no special power over the people who sell you the materials. The cheap ingredients are turned into expensive food. Lord Haskins presents himself as the champion of the poor, but he and the supermarkets he sells to are impoverishing people at both ends of the production chain, while enriching themselves.

Indeed, Haskins is openly contemptuous of consumers, mocking people who want organic food and don’t want GM ingredients. Again it’s not hard to see why: his company can deal only with large-scale enterprises using technology to grow identical products. At Northern Foods, because its own needs are so distinct from those of the people it sells to, the customer is always wrong.

Lord Haskins, the enemy of regulation, also chairs the government’s Better Regulation Task Force. When the taskforce investigated the impact of the laws governing farming, he told the newspapers that its report showed Britain had been “too eager to adopt Brussels’ proposals before others do. … Government has, through regulation, placed British farmers at a disadvantage against foreign competition.”

The report showed nothing of the kind. The idea that Britain adopts “European legislation faster and more thoroughly than other member states,” it revealed, “is not supported by the evidence. … Environmental regulations are generally more stringent in the northern member states than in the UK.”

Britain, in truth, has done less than almost any other country in Europe to control farming’s impact on the environment. We have designated a far smaller area of land as “nitrate sensitive” than the law requires. We have failed to prevent the repeated pesticide poisoning of our rivers and reservoirs. After 16 years, we have yet to implement the EU directive on environmental impact assessments. As a result — as Professor Jules Pretty of Essex University has shown — every hectare of British farmland costs the taxpayer an average of £208 a year in environmental remediation. Though Haskins would have it otherwise, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that large farmers are more destructive than small ones.

But while he couldn’t alter the report’s findings, Lord Haskins’ grubby fingerprints can be found all over its recommendations. The government, they insist, should do more to lobby Europe against environmental laws; farmers should be permitted to rip up ancient hedgerows; the idea of a pesticide tax should be scrapped; the Environment Agency should reduce its inspections.

Green campaigners have, of course, challenged this approach. Haskins responds that well-funded environmental groups are disproportionately powerful. “Money,” he complained a few months ago, “matters more than democratic legitimacy.” Indeed it does, my noble lord.

So what are we to make of a corporate capitalist with Stalinist tendencies, who is both a New Labour peer and a champion of the rural oligarchy? Simply that he is a friend of power in all its forms, and an enemy of the powerless. As such he is the last person in Britain who should be asked to oversee the recovery of the countryside.

The rural destruction co-ordinator will stifle every opportunity for progressive change. He will complete the rout of Britain’s small farmers, then force the “restructured” industry into direct competition with the biggest farms on earth. The faltering attempts by small business people to build local food networks, independent shops and farmers’ markets will be smashed. Deregulation will sow the seeds of future crises, as big business is allowed to cut corners by poisoning the food chain. Environmental destruction will ravage the recovering tourist industry, as the peculiar beauty of the British countryside gives way to industrial monoculture. Consumers will lose, the environment will lose, but Northern Foods will never have to worry about its margins again.