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Horseburgers, snow-bound sheep, and why we need to get serious

In February Britain was treated to the horseburger saga. Bits of gee-gee were found in miscellaneous “beef products” in various supermarkets. Some burgers were horse all the way through; it was hard to find any beef at all. Some of the outcomes of the whole fiasco were predictable, and some were good; many people for…

In February Britain was treated to the horseburger saga. Bits of gee-gee were found in miscellaneous “beef products” in various supermarkets. Some burgers were horse all the way through; it was hard to find any beef at all. Some of the outcomes of the whole fiasco were predictable, and some were good; many people for a time turned away from the supermarkets and towards their local butchers. Other outcomes were less predictable and the implications are mixed; some horse butchers took the opportunity to market horseburgers openly, and people liked them. This may mean that the horse may find its way on to the British menu just as it has for many decades or centuries in much of Europe – which could be a good thing in some ways, but not so good in others.

But the larger lesson has not been learned: that horseburgers are just a symptom of a food system that is far too complicated and wide open to chicanery and general malpractice of all kinds and at all levels.  Of course, more and more of the loopholes can be plugged up to a point by more and more ingenious technology, and more and more layers of bureaucracy. Horses were detected in the burgers only by the kind of forensic molecular biology that now makes life so hard for burglars and muggers – by sniffing out minute quantities of DNA. To be sure, separate tests will be needed to identify any dog or badger or monkey that might find its way into the food chain (the world trade in bush meat is huge, and it has to go somewhere). Many more checkers-up will be needed to interpret, file, and apply appropriate statistics to the volumes of data that will doubtless have to be supplied with every carcass. All this will create jobs for graduates and generally therefore will contribute to GDP which means economic growth which will be seen as a good thing — and since this is all within the mindset of the governments and bureaucrats who make the rules, this doubtless is what will happen.

But we can be sure that no-one in high places will make the obvious point: that the present food chain is ludicrous; that we need above all to simplify;  that food everywhere, in all countries, should pass as directly as possible from farmer to consumer; that we need local markets; that most of the current middle-men should go, together with the bankers who supply the funds for the huge investment that this intricate food chain requires; and that if we did all this, then food could be far cheaper  — since most of what we now spend on food goes to middle-men and bankers. I wrote about all this in The New Statesman. 

Then in April came news from Wales of sheep and spring lambs lost in snowdrifts 20 feet deep. This, too, made national TV. There was much wringing of hands, although some in positions of influence took the Darwinian line and simply observed that when times get tough, it’s survival of the fittest. Those who were caught out by the snow, apparently, were the weak, and deserved to go to the wall.

But again, as with horseburgers, the appropriate response is quite different. First, we must at last acknowledge that climate change is real and huge and urgent. Admittedly, it has often snowed in April (I remember a deep fall in Yorkshire in the 1970s when I was on Easter holiday with the family – and sheep were lost then too) but now we can reckon that for the indefinite future, something dramatic is likely to happen every year; snow and burning heat, drought and flood, at apparently random intervals. So we are likely to find that it is harder and harder to grow food reliably at home – that brilliant years or months are liable to be followed by something ghastly.

But we can reckon, too, that whatever affects Britain will affect other parts of the world at least as dramatically, in a whole variety of ways, and that almost always, agriculture must suffer. So we can no longer take it for granted, as successive British governments have so blithely assumed over the past half century, that if our own farming fails we can simply import what we may need from elsewhere. Elsewhere may fail too – often even more dramatically than Britain does; and if there is any food on the world market, there are others these days who can bid more for it. Most of the world’s people will suffer horribly – and Britain is no longer insulated, despite our wealth and ostensible political clout. The only people who are liable to benefit from the turbulence of the years ahead are the speculators: the buyers of futures in wheat and beef and oil and what you will; as indeed they already are. I wrote about all this, too, in The Guardian

So what should we be doing? To begin with, we must start taking our own agriculture very seriously. It’s clear to all who have not leapt aboard the bandwagon that the global market simply does not work for the good of the world – certainly not in agriculture; and it ought to be obvious even to its staunchest advocates that the market cannot work at all unless there is a reasonably reliable supply of goods in which to trade. When the supply cannot be relied upon, then we just have to start doing whatever obviously needs doing, come what may, without regard for the niceties of economic dogma and political convenience, or the feelings of people in high places, just as we did in World War II. Right now all countries ought be striving for self-reliance in food: not trying as they have been urged to do to raise crops and livestock simply as commodities to sell on the world market to the highest bidder, or to sacrifice food to make way for biofuel if biofuel is more profitable, but just to make sure as far as possible that there is enough food in the world. All countries should accept that although self-reliance should generally be possible (except in seriously disastrous years) that we all need nonetheless to smarten our act – and in particular to guard as far as is possible against extremes and against uncertainty. Thus for centuries the farmers of Iceland have been raising sheep in vast numbers in a climate that generally is far more hostile than ours, largely on lava with only the thinnest covering of soil. They have done this by housing their sheep through the winter in cozy wooden sheds (though Iceland has almost zero native timber). If that, or something like it, is what it takes to keep sheep on the Welsh hills, then that is what we, as a country, should invest in.

But of course, none of what really needs doing – the simplification of the food chain; the creation of local markets; the drive to self-reliance, achieved mainly through small mixed farms; the investment in essential infrastructure, as opposed to the spurious high tech (GMOs and all the rest) favoured by the BBSRC – will be done by the government, or by the corporates and banks from whom they take their lead. Neither will it be advocated by the various economic and scientific experts to whom they choose to listen, who on the whole want an even freer market and even more high tech, for whatever misbegotten reasons.

It follows that if we, people at large who actually give a damn, want the world to be different, we have to do what needs doing for ourselves. Which of course is the point of the Agrarian Renaissance and of this College, which is intended to put the Renaissance on a robust footing.