Sometimes the hardest things to spot are invisible because they’re everywhere. Like the air we breathe, or as the sea appears to a fish, the all encompassing embrace of the big ideas have insinuated themselves into our inner and outer landscapes and become the framework itself. We know this is the case but it takes a film like The Matrix to spell it out. Today’s Guardian publishes a report on farm subsidies that makes scary reading in the precarious real world we inhabit. $1 million dollars a minute to pay farmers to do the wrong thing is such a preposterous idea that you might wonder whether it could possibly be true, but the reason it slips past us is because we never stand in a bank watching a man in a green overall withdrawing millions in cash.
The best place to see the madness of subsidy is locally – we’re in Lleyn, for instance, and we’re staying right next door to a typical small mixed farm. There are a few cattle and sheep, the adjoining field has a mixture of tups, and some Jacobs sheep graze the clifftops. There are all the usual features of the small farm here, hens, a couple of noisy ducks and some mangy looking cats eyeing us up. As we arrived here the farmer, whose knees are shot from handling sheep, was moving multiple trailer loads of nitrate fertiliser on to the farm. I reckon about 30 tons of the stuff passed by us. He’s not rich for sure, and he’s struggling to keep going in a market that’s rigged against him; impoverishing his own land in order to stay in the game. Ironically we saw him yesterday carrying a heavy bag of seaweed up from the shore, over his shoulder. He knows what he needs to do but he can’t do it.
A mile away we found another dairy farm while we were out searching for a source of freshly caught fish. You’d hardly know it was a dairy farm, it looked more like an industrial estate with its huge barns, silos and tanks. Everywhere there were warning signs that this was a bio-secure area and we were not welcome. Little bucolic charm there, then, but another sign of a broken farm economy.
The government last week announced a huge extension of the badger cull. With tuberculosis becoming endemic in dairy herds, the cost of compensating farmers is enormous and yet almost all the scientific evidence suggests that badgers are not the main source of the disease. TB is a disease that spreads most quickly in highly stressed environments – such as when you force cows to produce far more milk than they are properly capable of. The principal feed crop grown on intensive dairy farms is maize, which is deficient as food without supplementation – rather like living on Big Macs! Badgers absolutely love eating maize and so the farmers are the most likely cause of the explosion in the badger population by providing thousands of acres of their favourite food. Add to that the constant movement of cattle around the country and it doesn’t need a degree in agriculture to see that the problem is probably another example of agricultural self-harm.
And yet, I read an intriguing article in the same newspaper last week that reported how many industries are quietly greening their approach because it makes more economic sense. Ironically they’re not publicising this because public perception is that ‘doing the right thing’ results in more cost and less quality in the product. Some Portuguese wine producers have gone organic without announcing the fact, because they get bigger yields and better quality and they can sell at the same price.
The only way to tackle this desperately urgent challenge is to take on the stakeholders, the industrial farm corporations, the supermarkets, the manufacturers of damaging fertilizers and lethal farm chemicals, but most challenging of all, ourselves. I remember one tired old management cliché that might fit here – culture eats strategy for breakfast. The answer always comes back “we’re only giving the public what it wants!” and it’s true. The situation won’t really change until we see through the ideological fog that sustains intensive, destructive, subsidised farming and demand something better.