The Fight To Save Our Food


MODERN food policies are screwing up the world. In all countries -- but of course, particularly in poor ones -- they are killing people, in a variety of ways. They are overriding traditional cooking with all its family and social customs. They are doing more than anything else to destroy wildlife and the landscapes it occupies.

They are destroying rural economies and the life that goes with them -- not by accident (as is the case with wildlife) but by intent. For good measure, modern farming is gratuitously cruel to animals and despite occasional ad-hoc legislation, it is getting worse.

Yet we are supposed to accept and admire the scientists, tycoons, and politicians who are bringing about the changes because, they claim, the despoliation that we see all around us represents "progress".

There's already a lot of protest. But if humanity really cares about humanity we need to grasp the nettle -- to acknowledge that the present generation of "experts" and leaders have got it all horribly wrong. We (meaning all of us) have got to re-think agriculture from first principles -- ask what it is, and what we really want from it, and how to get the world back on course.

Do I exaggerate? Not at all. The bedrock point is that it's technically straightforward to feed all the people in the world well, with food that's abundant, nutritious, safe and -- a key point -- able to support all the great cuisines of all the world.

But that's not how things are turning out. Famines are still common (almost routine in Africa) while 800 million people worldwide are currently undernourished. Yet in more and more countries, from the Americas to the Far East, hunger now persists side by side with gross obesity. A common sight in modern Beijing is two trim parents brought up in harsher days with an unfortunate, ponderous globe of a child. With obesity goes diabetes and in a few decades, according to the World Health Organisation, the number of diabetics worldwide will exceed the present population of the United States. In Mexico, diabetes is already the chief cause of death. These are the fruits of the modern food industry we are all supposed to believe is working selflessly on our behalf.

Food kills us too, by infection. The dangers come mainly from meat. While it's true that legislation grows more extensive by the day, and the government recently established the Food Standards Agency, such bureaucracy is cheap. Livestock production needs re-thinking and re-designing from top to bottom -- and that, it seems, would cost too much.

The government would like us to believe that BSE and the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease were acts of God or were caused by careless farmers breaking the rules. In truth, both epidemics (and a lot of food poisoning too, which also kills people but seems almost minor by comparison) resulted directly from cut-price husbandry. But the only coherent government policy this past 30 years has been that food production of all kinds should be as cut-price as possible.

BSE came about because farmers fed bits of cow and sheep to dairy cows as a cheap source of protein. The secret of good farming is to break chains of infection but here the farmers created a chain that does not exist in nature. Science did not predict the resulting disease. However science is not and cannot be omniscient, and the blind trust we are encouraged to place in it is misguided. Millions of cattle have been slaughtered and people have died .

The foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 -- the worst on record: in Dumfries and Galloway alone almost 180 farms were affected -- happened partly because the government did not spend enough on its own policy. It intended to keep the virus out of the country altogether, as the same strategy had successfully excluded rabies. But whereas successive governments took rabies seriously, the foot-and-mouth policy was run on a wing and a prayer. A few years ago it was all too easy to bring diseased meat into Britain. Once in the UK the virus was carried all over the country in double-quick time because most of the local abattoirs had been closed in a cost-cutting exercise. This means animals sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles to slaughter.

The meat trade is horrifying. In France meat is labelled so that consumers can ascribe particular joints to particular farms. In the UK, however, the supply chain "from field to fork" is so long and convoluted that it offers endless scope for scams. Last year in Yorkshire tons of condemned chicken -- green with decay -- were first doctored and passed off as pet food, then doctored again and re-labelled and finally slipped into the human food chain. And only last Friday four men were jailed for 10 years for selling condemned poultry. Operating from rat-infested and sewage strewn premises in Derbyshire the food fraud gang butchered one million unfit chickens and turkeys and sold them to hospitals, schools and leading supermarkets.

Arable farming is no less problematic. Crops of all kinds are now transformed by genetic engineering and so become "GMOs", genetically modified organisms. Advocates in science, industry, and government claim that without GMOs the world cannot be fed. Some of those advocates surely know that this is not true and are simply lying. Others believe what they say, but are mistaken. Either way this belief, echoing from the highest echelons, is wrong.

In truth, GMOs could have a great deal to offer the world. It is surely wrong to write them off altogether. In the Sahel, the huge area of semi-desert south of the Sahara, local farmers commonly lose half of their sorghum crop from mildew alone. Genetic engineers are now striving to produce mildew-resistant strains , and good luck to them. In Brazil just a few weeks ago, I spoke to government scientists who aim to develop pest-resistant papaya. Papaya is very important locally for cash and for vitamin A and again I wish them well.

But all technologies bring risks, which must be balanced against possible advantage. For the Sahelian sorghum farmers the possible advantages are obvious, and the risks seem small by comparison. But in most of the world -- including Britain; several farms in north-east Scotland are participating in GM oilseed rape crop trials -- there are no obvious advantages. The risks are not worth taking.

It matters, too, who is developing the technologies and why. Sir Kenneth Baxter, a former director of the Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen, said in the late 1970s that science should be for the good of all humanity not just for making profits for the few. Brazil's GM papaya is being developed by the people and for the people. GM technology could be easy and small-scale, and every country including the poorest, from Angola to Bangladesh, could in principle have their own programmes for their own purposes.

But today's GMOs are mostly developed by Western corporations. They are not designed to tackle the real problems of local farmers but to make profits for their creators. Zambia was recently criticised for refusing to accept American GM maize. But that maize was designed for US farmers and in any case, much of Zambia is sorghum country. After decades of "aid" and dumping of foreign surpluses, Africans know the thin edge of the wedge when they see it.

The reality of farming at the moment is that common sense has been sacrificed for profit.

There are three ingredients of profit, as any businessperson knows. The first is to maximise production. So modern farming is as productive as possible -- even when the country is producing vast surpluses, as is the case in Europe and the US.

The second is to minimise the cost of production, which means cutting labour. Britain and the US now employ little more than 1% of their workforce on the land -- in the US there are more people in prison than there are full-time farmers. People are replaced by big machines and by industrial chemistry. Husbandry is simplified and, as foot-and-mouth disease so horribly demonstrated, it becomes riskier and riskier. In Third World countries 60% of people work on the land. Britain and the US had well-established urban industries long before they ran down their agrarian workforce but the poor countries are being encouraged to adopt Western practices and lose farm labour before they have alternatives. The real growth industries in Africa are mugging and prostitution.

The third ingredient is to "add value". British governments, in particular, like to claim that cheap production leads to cheap food, but this is another con. Profit is maximal when production is lowest and sale price is highest. A survey by the Real Meat Company in the west of England recently showed that their own sausages cost only half as much as the cheapest brands in the supermarket. The Real Meat sausages look much dearer -- 3.50 per pound against 1.75. But they contain four times as much lean meat. Supermarket shoppers pay for filler.

Globalisation is making the whole caboodle worse. Applied indiscriminately to all crops, it is disastrous. Every farmer in the world is now engaged in a global dogfight with every other farmer. First-world farmers cut costs by cutting labour and mechanising (and using GMOs). Some third-world farmers throw their lot in with Western corporations (farming is the modern imperialism) or else work for slave wages.

Many countries have all but stopped growing food for their own people to focus on cash crops. Costa Rica has all but given up on the traditional maize and beans, and buys in staples from the US. Its farmers are encouraged to grow coffee for cash -- but everyone's cultivating coffee now, even the Chinese and Vietnamese, and the price has fallen by 70% in the past five years. In fact coffee is currently being sold for less than the cost of production.

Countries that go for all-cash agriculture are giving up on independence. They are, as Harold Macmillan said in a slightly different context, selling the family silver. Meanwhile Western supermarkets make a virtue of buying at the lowest possible price -- which means from the world's most desperate farmers.

It's a gloomy picture. But it's one that we can fix. For it is possible to feed people well, and to look after wildlife and the environment, and to support agrarian economies, and to be kind to livestock -- but only if we design an agriculture expressly for that purpose. What we need is an "enlightened" agriculture, rooted in sound biology -- the biology of human beings, of plants and animals, and of the world as a whole. Just as farmers work out how much food to give a chicken or pig, so we must think about how much food human beings need. Then we need to see how the world itself can physically provide what's needed.

That's the theory. In practice, enlightened agriculture reflects nature. The most suitable land should be used for the most important crops, the staples like cereals, pulses and potatoes. The richest land is for fruit and vegetables.

Yet this isn't a vegetarian formula. There is plenty of room for livestock. But we must play to the strengths of the different kinds of animals. Cattle and sheep are ruminants -- great at eating grass, which grows on hills and wet meadows where cereals cannot be grown. Traditionally, pigs and poultry were kept to eat leftovers and this should remain their role.

In other words, the ratio of plants to animals in enlightened agriculture is high -- just as it is in nature. But present day farming is organised quite differently. In the cause of profit, it aims to produces as much meat as possible. Half the world's wheat, three quarters of the maize and 90% of the soya is grown for livestock. Animals raised on such a scale become our competitors.

In addition to keeping fewer livestock, all farms should be as mixed as possible. Moreover for reasons both biological and social, farms should be small, with plenty of people to work them. But this isn't simply a reversion to the 1950s. The traditional structures, with good husbandry, should of course be abetted by good science -- to work out what really needs doing and to provide the technologies that will aid us. The tragedy is that science at present is employed to override good husbandry -- primarily putting farming in the hands of the big corporations.

In physical terms, at least, enlightened agriculture is easy, little more than common sense. But as governments and commerce have abandoned common sense, in the meantime, we will have to take matters into our own hands.

What are the ways of doing this? Well, a surprising number of farmers are still trying to practise good husbandry. Consumers should try to seek them out. Organic farmers can be a bit too anti-technology than seems sensible but they too are carrying the flag of good husbandry, and deserve support.

In the short term we might pay more for good food that's well raised. But in the longer term the prices will come down if there is a demand and producers supply more. Also, governments and "experts" might discover the error of their present ways and come back into line. The game's not over yet -- but if sanity doesn't prevail it soon will be.

So Shall We Reap is published by Penguin on September 25 at 20.

The Sunday Herald is media sponsor of Food For Thought: Food Policy For Scotland, a major conference this Tuesday at the European in Scotland Conference Centre, 39 Palmerston Place, Edinburgh. Speakers include our environment editor Rob Edwards. For details contact Pat Herd, Centre for Scottish Public Policy on 0131-558 8179

21 September 2003