Recently the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, gave a talk about the future of farming in Britain. I’m really interested in how the government are using their austerity and ‘necessary cuts’ narrative to promote corporate farming and what that means for us and for the land in general. She says:
“…Underlying all of this is the power shift from the centre towards local organisations – putting local people back in charge – a classic example of what we mean by Big Society.
This shift will change the way the department works. We want to see a greater degree of trust and collaboration when developing and delivering policy. This will allow you as an industry to shape your own destiny.
I think this last point is of paramount importance. I see my job as helping you to become more profitable, innovative and competitive. By creating the right conditions for the industry to raise productivity, to be entrepreneurial, to continue to develop strong connections with your markets and customers and establish robust links throughout the food chain. I’m really keen to do my bit but it will require you as an industry to step up and seize these opportunities. Sustainable intensification is an example, where fewer agricultural inputs results in less cost to you and the environment. A win-win situation all round…”
What if local people don’t want to be an industry? What if we don’t want to be more profitable, innovative and competitive? What if we don’t want to step up and seize the opportunity of “sustainable intensification” <which surely simply means abuse that can be continued indefinitely>? It seems so obvious that the dichotomy established by this government – big government bad, Big Society good – has a third presence, Big Business, which rarely enters the debate yet stands to gain handsomely. Strange, that.
“…But this hasn’t stopped us spending in excess of £2 billion of taxpayers money in pursuit of our objectives. Of greening the economy. Of enhancing the environment and biodiversity…”
Enhancement. Botox for the land. This is so polar opposite to the fight to remove the limits on the land regenerating itself.
“…An industry that embraces risk and manages risk. An industry that wants to deliver public environmental goods. That takes greater responsibility for animal health and welfare standards. And an industry that underpins the quality of rural life…”
Farming has been industrialised. We know this. Now it is being asked to become more corporate. “Deliver public environmental goods.” I wonder how she means “goods”? In the sense that corporate farming increasingly packages the environment into bitesize chunks for the public? Or in the sense that what is “good” about our (the public’s) environment – i.e. our deep, spiritual, animal connection with the rest of the inhabitants of the earth and the benefits that those inhabitants provide to us – must be mediated through corporate farming? Or maybe both. Very clever, Caroline.
And one last thing – you’re asking an industry to underpin and define quality of life? I don’t even need to comment. The statement critiques itself. And at the same time as industrial agriculture is made mandatory and the basis of rural life, tory voters across the countryside complain bitterly that they can hear tractors as they tend their rural manicured lawn. Or that the rural life should not include cows shitting outside their gate or in their view. Be an industry! But don’t spoil my picture-postcard view!
What is being done here? What is being attacked? There is so much defensiveness, there must be attack. I’m starting to see each of these strands as connected, yet with different targets. The conservative view – don’t change the countryside! – and the consumption of the land – let’s all play the Good Life! – both work to attack farmers and other people who make a living on the land. This process diminishes the life and vitality of the human-land relationship (and yes, that relationship is problematic). Landworkers are forced to make a living from markets and capital instead of grass, soil and the churning of life. This feeds directly into, and is fed by, the other strand: the urge to not only keep agriculture industrial but ‘advance’ to corporate farming. Which is primarily concerned with (to use Jensen’s words) turning the living into the dead. Beautiful individuals become units become commodities become money become figures in a graph. That is how the churning of life is converted into power.
This corporatisation of the land is not a pragmatic response to the global economic climate or the challenges of national food security, and it is certainly not a policy for the protection of farmers or the environment. It is an ideology. It is visible in the planned sale of half the Forestry Commission’s woodlands – likely to rich individuals wanting to avoid inheritance tax and timber multinationals such as UPM who are fascinated by biomass as profitable fuel. It is visible in the dissolution of the Agricultural Wages Boards and sending the ‘industry’ into the Minimum Wage Act so that farming behaves more like other ‘sectors’. It is visible in the encouragement of ever larger animal factories such as the 3700-cow Nocton dairy, and the 25000-pig farm at Foston which, if any bigger, would have to be classified as a power station due to the amount of waste produced. It is visible in the National Farmers’ Union: I’m not sure if there is a more pro-corporate, anti-worker union in the country. There are well-greased revolving doors between the boards of the NFU, corporate industry and government departments.
The message from the State is: intensify and corporatise, and we will give you money to “enhance the environment”. The message from the State is: become more abusive, and we will help you hide the bruises.
I hope you’re asking along with me: how do we resist this?