Tuesday, December 3, 2013

CAP Reform - a guest blog

Richard Munday, the author of this piece, is a farmer and a man who has written about the EU, farming and gun ownership in various countries. He actually prefers to be known as a "reactionary peasant" but I am not convinced that is a term that can be applied to anyone in England after the fourteenth century. He has kindly allowed me to post this piece on my blog. All comments are welcome. 

CAP Reform 
Richard Munday

The EU’s titanic Common Agricultural Policy is currently being reformed. Like the repainting of the Forth Bridge, there is nothing novel about this; the chief interest of the current proposals for the general public is the shift to what are appealingly called "greening" measures. Henceforward, for instance, almost all arable farms above smallholding size are to be obliged to grow three crops: on the face of it an attractive and laudable rebuff to monoculture; but one which will come at a price.

The price for this crop diversification will be paid chiefly by that most endangered of all rural species, the small farmer. Already marginalized by the technological developments that have changed the big 60 horsepower tractor of fifty years ago into the 600 horsepower one of today, and the subvention structures that have favoured ever larger landholdings, the chances are that the surviving small farmer now relies on contractors using equipment he can no longer afford but with which he can no longer compete. If he now has to grow three crops on an area as small as 75 acres (30 hectares in newspeak), at what price will the contractor be bothered to bring in his huge equipment to cultivate each one separately? Chances are again that the small farm will disappear, its fields aggregated with larger landholdings where the economies of scale present no problems to growing multiple crops.

Changes of economic scale have of course destroyed or transformed many industries: should the fate of the family farm specially concern the wider public? Or indeed the fate of UK farming as a whole, given that since 1870 it has been cheaper to import American wheat and Argentinian beef than to grow it at home, and that thanks to our global economy supermarkets can supply year-round strawberries (in looks, even if not in taste)? For the past century British agriculture has been in a terminal condition from which it has only ever been artificially resuscitated. When the German submarine threat to our food supplies in 1917 brought Britain to within three months of defeat, the dereliction of late Victorian farming was rued and remedied, but not for long: agricultural support was withdrawn again after the war, and a quarter of the now close to valueless land in the country had changed hands by 1922. Many fields lay derelict until the U-Boats once again came to the British farmers’ rescue in the Second World War, and the life of the country hung, in Churchill'’s famous fear, on the Battle of the Atlantic.

Agricultural subvention today is a last legacy of wartime experience, but WWII is long ago and memories are short. Even in the days of the notorious EU "grain mountains" of the 1980s, Britain’s food reserves stood at barely three weeks; today we have only what exists in the supply chain: some ten days’ supply. We live "nine meals from anarchy" (in Lord Cameron’s phrase), and less than a fortnight from starvation. There is nothing very special about that: through most of human history starvation has been such a common cause of death that the two words are often linguistically cognate.

Perhaps, like our recent brave strategic assumption that we can leave a gap of years between scrapping our last aircraft carrier and building a new one, we can assume that we will not face a food crisis for the forseeable future. But whereas even a generation ago Britain could feed 80% of a stable population with home-grown produce, we are now down to under 60% of our need, and our population is growing. Technologically, moreover, we are much more vulnerable than we were in WWI or WWII: the monster agricultural machinery of today can be halted by the failure of a microchip, and the old simple machines of the family farm have mostly been scrapped or exported to the Third World. The dying breed that is the British farmer now has an average age of 59: where are his successors? While we have the luxury of making decisions about the Common Agricultural Policy, it behoves us to consider these issues.

1 comment:

  1. There are actually a number different issues here I think.

    Firstly, it is a matter of historical record that since man started subsistence farming advances in techniques have meant that over time fewer people are needed to work on the land. This has made us all richer as we can devote ourselves to doing other things rather than needing to labour in fields just to survive. Bigger, better machinery is simply part of that trend. This is really all about specialisation of labour. Railing against that I'm afraid is really just a form of Luddism. However there are people who choose to grow food inefficiently; they call themselves organic farmers and there is a market for what they produce.

    Secondly importing food can be seen as a hedge against starvation. If crops fail in one place the ability to import from another place could save many lives. When looked at in that context I'm not too worried that we choose to import food. Obviously in extremis we would be best advised to ensure we can feed our population should we have to on our own. This is mainly a matter for Government contingency planning, and I have no confidence there are any sane plans in place to mitigate against this threat, although I think there could be.

    Thirdly it goes without saying that anything the EU implements is almost certainly going to be stupid, and they haven't disappointed us this time. But as Helen keeps pointing out there is no point leaving the EU if our idiots draft equally stupid legislation, and I see no evidence they won't.