Watch the Basket Case Become the Breadbasket

Farming gets off its knees

The Sunday Telegraph
January 6, 2008

By Clive Aslet 

The reviving tea that I sip while writing this article is contained in a mug that an East Anglian farmer gave me last year. It is emblazoned with a record of the 2007 harvest, yields per hectare for wheat, oilseed rape and beans. The harvest was not a bumper one; the terrible rains knocked some of it on the head. But a commemorative mug is made every year, in the spirit of those Georgian agriculturalists who gathered for sheep shearings and commissioned paintings of egregiously fat pigs.

In recent years, it must have seemed a gesture of defiance against a nation that appeared to have turned its back on farming, even if it continued to shower some sectors with cash.

But the mood is changing. A whiff of this was caught at the Oxford Farming Conference last week. By the time August 2008 comes along, it will be, so to speak, mugs all round. Mugs for buoyant farmers. Mugs for the rural community, which benefits from an upturn in farming. Mugs for the geniuses who shape the Common Agricultural Policy, able to contemplate a world with fewer subsidies as agriculture begins to pay for itself.

It won't immediately be such good news for the British public. The recovery of the countryside comes on the back of rising prices. Already, dairy farmers are receiving more than the cost of production for milk, and the price of wheat has doubled in a year. The supermarkets have hurried to pass on these increased costs to their customers, mysteriously inflating some of them en route. At the beginning of 2007, it was reported in near disbelief that the price of a standard loaf would break through the pounds 1 barrier. It now sells for pounds 1.12. Yet flour represents only a small proportion of the cost of a loaf - about 6 per cent. Don't ask me to explain Tesconomics.

But the supermarkets have been able to deflect attention from their own profit margins to the farmers. For a decade, the public has ground its teeth over the injustices meted out to an industry hit by Defra incompetence, floods and plague. My bet is that public sympathy will evaporate like the mist over a Thanet cabbage field. The days of that urban bogeyman - the barley baron - are back.

John Knox would known where to wag his finger. Sex! The human race is reproducing itself at such a rate that the present world population of six billion is predicted to rise to nine billion in 50 years' time. Riches! The newly prosperous Chinese are discovering a taste for hamburgers and other kinds of Western food. Divine retribution (as a Calvinist like Knox might have interpreted global warming)! Australia's wheatfields are frazzled. The rain in the Ukraine hasn't fallen on the grain. If the predictions of climatologists are correct, large areas of productive land around the world will be lost to flooding. Not a comfortable prospect for Norfolk but far worse for Bangladesh.

Of course, some areas will benefit from climate change, but in the southern hemisphere most of them happen to be ocean. So the northern hemisphere will be responsible for feeding much of the planet. Think of the mugs my farmer friends will be making then.

Heaven knows, it won't be plain sailing. Gordon Brown hasn't twigged. He still wants to build houses and retail sheds on farmland. Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, new president of the Country Landowners Association, believes that even growing fuel crops, to help reduce CO2, will soon be regarded as dilettante use of an increasingly precious resource. Instead, we shall need the land to yield ever more food, piling on fertiliser to do so.

But hang on - extracting nitrogen from the air for fertilisers involves burning enormous quantities of fossil fuel, the very thing we all want to avoid. Even ploughing releases carbon, previously locked up in the soil, into the atmosphere. Livestock farmers face the problem of their animals' table manners. Wind (to put it coyly) contains methane - a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more damaging than CO2. Boffins are working on a solution, which will capture the methane so it can be burnt as a fuel. But commercial applications remain some way off.

No doubt farmers will complain about their lot in 2008; they're known for it. And I won't pretend that the next 12 months will be an annus mirabilis. Exorbitant fuel prices hit the poor in rural areas disproportionately hard, because they cannot get around without their old bangers. The cottages where the growing number of young people who want to go into farming would like to live have become second homes.

Greenpeace will continue its Canute-like stand against the tide of GM that is already lapping over our shoreline. (How much of the milk and meat on sale in Britain is produced without GM soya? Not a lot.) Parts of the countryside will come to be hated, as the most prescient or jumpy among us start to stock their larders with emergency supplies of tinned food. But rural Britain will no longer be treated as an economic basket case. It will regain its self-respect.



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