'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
Blair's Britain Only Slightly Soiled
We kid you not....One of SQUALL's reporters was recently offered an entire flock of sheep for nothing by a Herefordshire farmer keen to off-load her worthless burden. It is now possible to buy an adult Welsh sheep for as little as ten pence. With farm incomes plummeting by a half in the year up to June 1999, conventional non-organic agriculture in the UK is in its death throes and the cries of anguish voice loud from the countryside.
In an effort to assuage the swelling discontent (used as a political weapon by pro-hunting lobby groups like the Countryside Alliance), Tony Blair recently found £150 million to compensate Britain's suffering farmers. But whilst the Government publicly laments the tragedy by throwing elastoplast money at a seemingly hopeless situation, it continues, inexplicably, to ignore an agricultural salvation prospering in the wings.
For whilst chemically-injected sheep munch unprofitably on chemically-soaked pastures, sales of organic produce have doubled over the last two years. Annual consumer spending on organic food in the UK rose 40% last year to £390 million and is expected to top £1 billion within the next two years.
So it was an announcement worthy of some incredulity when the Government said recently that finance to help farmers convert to organic has run out and that no further money will be available for at least 18 months. The exasperated National Farmer's Union slated the move as "ludicrous" And so it is that 70% of organic food bought in the UK is imported from abroad, with both British farmers and consumers paying the price. A recent opinion conducted by the Soil Association revealed that consumer willingness to purchase organic food - booming though it is - is still hampered by high prices. How much lower would it be if we grew it ourselves? How much more could we afford to eat organic?
According to the EU's farming commissioner, Franz Fischler, British farmers are "failing to capitalise" on the boom in consumer demand for organic produce: "In some member states the success of organic farming is overwhelming. In others, like the UK, it unfortunately still lags behind." An estimated one per cent of British farmland is run organically compared with ten per cent in Germany and Austria.
The problem for British farmers is that it takes five years of non-chemical application to achieve organic status for land; a period of time which requires financial support. The conversion grants given to farmers by the UK government to facilitate such changes have always been among the lowest in Europe. Now the money has run out all together.
The major UK supermarket chains on the other hand are now hailing organic produce as the new saviour; making hasty readjustments to both retail strategy and marketing. Sainsbury's may have been trailing in the UK's supermarket profit league lately but their rapidly increasing organic sales now lead the current supermarket 'go organic' boom. It is a trend not lost on a British retailing industry bracing itself for the takeover of Asda by the world's largest retail business, Wal Mart. The American retail colossus is about to arrive on British shores with massive bulk purchase potential, aggressive marketing and wide-scale dramatic price cuts on popular supermarket products. Whilst the UK's most profit-successful supermarket chain, Tesco, are putting themselves in the ring for a price match, the other UK supermarket companies realise Wal Mart's immanent foist on British retailing is a serious and potentially terminal threat.
Iceland, Marks and Spencers and Sainsbury's are amongst those already redirecting their advertising focus to show off organic credential, undoubtedly aware that specialising in such produce may be the only sanctuary from Wal Mart's market invasion.
So where does this leave the Government? According to Helen Browning, chair of the Soil Association: "By inadequately funding the [conversion] scheme the Government has lost a crucial opportunity to revitalise the beleaguered farming industry in this country in a sector where the potential is obvious to everyone." Everyone that is except the government itself. So why the blind eye?
Lamentable differences in the Government's allocation of agricultural cash provides the clues. This year's exhausted government grants for organic conversion amounted to a paltry £6 million with just £2.2 million spent on organic farming research. In contrast, the Government shelled out £52 million agricultural biotechnology research in 1998.
Blair's US driven globalisation myopia has squandered both political attention and direct financial support on facilitating Monsanto's drive towards genetically-modified agriculture and away from the irrefutable potential of organic farming. Both the Soil Association and organic farming in general, stand expressively in diametric opposition to everything genetically-modified farming is about. Public concerns about genetically modified foodstuffs are now so great that both the national media and the the British supermarket industry have stepped off their usual safety fence and avowedly embraced the 'No to GM food' campaign; an issue which was only propelled into public consciousness after over a year of crop-ripping direct action back in 1997/8.
Preoccupied with facilitating big business, Tony Blair is the last to acknowledge the point. Meanwhile, the whole country is losing out on a sustainable agricultural future because of a government which fights more for the rights free-trade globalised big business than it does for its own nation's long term health. Anyone who witnessed Tony Blair in a McDonald's burger bar in Coventry last year, serving happy meals to children in front of the media camera's will of course realise this already.
It is people-blind money-myopic strategies such as these which will be the subject of furtherment in the Millenium Round talks of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle at the end of November. It is SQUALL's understanding that activists will, once again, be out in force.