Farmers turned park-keepers

The Curry Commission's farming policy proposes a world fit for beetles.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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UK farmers are struggling to survive the impact of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, and the underlying problem of falling prices; the exchequer is burdened with farm subsidies; consumers are distrustful of mass-produced food; and the public wants access to a well-kept countryside.

The resolution to all of these problems proposed by the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, chaired by Sir Donald Curry, has a ring of common sense. The proposal is to shift the subsidy on mass food production to reward farmers for taking care of the country, and for growing organic food. The policy of switching subsidies from mass food production to environmental care is called ‘modulation’ in the European Union (EU), and the Food and Farming Commission thinks that it can work here.

This new policy will create real changes, but not those that are envisaged.

By suggesting a shift from mass food production to organics, the commission is flying in the face of a change that has already happened. Thanks to scientific farming methods, yields have vastly increased over the past 30 years, saving both on labour and land use. Lower farm prices are reflected in the fall in household spending on food from around a third to little more than a tenth since the 1960s. Consumers will not countenance the loss of income implied by a reversal of that pattern of spending.

That is not to say that there will not be a take-up of subsidies to organic farmers. The proven niche market for organic food, though, suggests that the trend is consumer-led. But while the demand for organic food does arise out of people’s fears about poisonous factory food, the real push behind the growth of the Soil Association is producer-led.

For small farmers facing ruin, conversion to organics is one of many crisis strategies, along with converting to bed and breakfast and other leisure services. As hard as small farmers push the case for organics, the market remains tiny, and recent consumer research shows most people see little advantage to more highly priced, but hardly more attractive organic foods. A report by consumer analysts Mintel in January 2002, suggests that there has been a drop over the past two years in the number of people thinking organic products are better for you than non-organic, from 22 percent to 18 percent. While in 1999, 22 percent of people questioned in the UK said organic was safer than non-organic, this fell to16 percent last year (1).

The argument that farmers can be converted from businessmen to ‘custodians of the land’ confuses propaganda with reality. Farmers have often had to justify their control over three quarters of all the land in the UK, and the patrician idea that they are ‘stewards’ of our natural heritage has helped.

Heavily subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy, it suited farmers to claim that they did not own the land selfishly, but merely looked after it for future generations. But to try and make the slogan of stewardship into a reality would reduce the farmers from independent producers to government-employed park-keepers. Once the public good determined their status, it would be difficult to avoid advertising the new post of steward, and not obvious that ex-farmers would be the best choice for such a role.

The practical outcome of the policy is more likely to be a government-managed winding-up of small farms. The practical case for such a measure is hard to avoid. Already farming has split into two separate activities: large-scale agribusiness like Northern Foods or Bernard Matthews, which feed the greater part of the population; and smaller, hobby farms that are run at a loss, because selling-up is too painful a decision. The strict letter of the Curry Commission’s plan is an ecological utopia of land-husbandry for the common good. But its application will simply help to manage the transition from family farms to agri-business.

The most conservative part of the modulation policy is the determination to sustain the historical dividing line between town and country, when the real basis for this divide has long since fallen away. In a practical sense, there is little need for the two production sectors of industry and agriculture to be geographically separated. Greater mobility makes dispersed living a real possibility, so that people no longer need to be cheek by jowl in nineteenth-century cities. In the suburbs, we can already see the division between town and country being abolished.

Just as land is being taken out of farming, the demand for new houses, especially in south-east England, is at an all-time high. The conservative estimate given in 1996 by what was then the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions was for four million new homes, and the demand is pushing London prices beyond the range of young adults. The obvious solution is to build more houses in the places people want to live, the London suburbs and the dormitory towns of the south east, as surplus farmland becomes vacant.

But to the powers-that-be such a change is an anathema. The government’s urban taskforce demands that new homes be restricted to ‘brownfield sites’, on recovered wasteland, to hem people into the cities. New ‘green-belt’ areas have been created to restrict development. Grimly hanging on to the social order of a gentrified countryside and proletarian cities, the government prefers to see surplus land turned to wilderness than let it be occupied by people.

In Norfolk, 14 square miles of farmland have been given over to beetles and other natural species. With a tenth of all farm land already idle under the EU’s set-aside scheme, the plan is that all of this will be made into ‘nature reserves’ to keep it out of the hands of anybody that might want to live there.

Surveying the enclosure of common land from the people to raise sheep in the sixteenth century, Thomas More wrote caustically: ‘your sheep, that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.’ Today, he would have to write ‘beetles’ for ‘sheep’.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

Read On:

‘Town and Country in Perspective’, James Heartfield, in Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, by Ian Abley and James Heartfield (eds), John Wiley, 2001. See the website

Urban prejudices, rural myths, by Frank Furedi

spiked-issue: Modern Life

(1) Public ‘starting to doubt’ organic food, BBC News Online, 4 January 2002

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Topics Politics


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