A Rich Harvest of Lies, Exaggeration and Hypocrisy

By Walston, Oliver | The Independent (London, England), August 24, 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Rich Harvest of Lies, Exaggeration and Hypocrisy


Walston, Oliver, The Independent (London, England)


The farmers of Britain went on strike yesterday. The problem is that nobody seems to have noticed. A radical group called Farmers for Action, supported by the Green Party, persuaded some dairy farmers not to sell their milk for 24 hours. Their objective was to publicise the fact that British agriculture is on the edge of bankruptcy. Whilst their tactics may be bizarre, their anger and fear are very genuine.

Once upon a time many years ago, when summers were long, lazy and hot, and Dennis Compton scored three thousand runs in a season, everybody loved a farmer. We had, after all, dug mightily for victory and as a result had fed the nation. Nobody noticed - or even cared - that the brussels sprouts were soggy and the potatoes scabby. Meat was rationed, fruit was scarce and supermarkets were inconceivable. But - or so the story goes - we were all happy.

In those sunlit days the National Farmers' Union was the most powerful lobbying organisation in the UK. Such was its power that with each passing year guaranteed prices rose, and with them came a vast array of subsidies which paid farmers to grow more food, apply more fertiliser, grub up trees and rip out hedges. Not a protest was heard from the public or the politicians.

Decades passed. Whitehall withered and Brussels burgeoned. The Common Agricultural Policy served only to increase the size of the cornucopia which disgorged its goodies into the bank accounts of every farmer in the land. For nearly three decades, from the 1970s to the 1990s, British farmers enjoyed a prosperity of which their fathers and grandfathers could never have dreamt. The economics of the lunatic asylum reached their nadir (or apogee if you happened to be a farmer) in 1993, when the price of wheat rose sharply and - glory of glories - so did the subsidy from Brussels paid to compensate farmers for a predicted fall in price!

Throughout this period it might be supposed that the farmers of Britain would at least have been happy, satisfied and silent. We had, after all, won a lottery for which we had not even bought a ticket. But old habits die hard. Indeed when it comes to the NFU, old habits grow ever stronger. Which is why the loudest noise in the British countryside was the sound of the NFU telling anyone who would listen that the farmers of Britain were suffering terribly. The solution was the same as ever: higher prices and more subsidies.

The glory days of British agriculture are a distant memory. For a decade the industry has staggered from crisis to crisis while the subsidies have shrunk like an icicle in spring. Today the Government yawns as farming totters on the edge of meltdown. The two pillars of British agriculture, cereals and milk, are in crisis.

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