Why I believe Labour plans to wipe out farmers like me

By Zac Goldsmith

Sunday Mail June 3, 2001

Devon is a part of the country where hearts beat at a different pace. Here is a place where people still know where their food comes from, where small farmers still care for the land. Never, before moving to the West Country, had I encountered a people so laid back. That is what I thought as I began to build a home in West Devon. Now I am not so sure.

In the two years I have spent here, there has been a noticeable shift in the mood. Gone is the resigned acceptance that ‘politicians will be politicians’. In its place is a fear, not of a disease that has claimed so many livelihoods, but of the Government itself. And story after story — some confirmed that this fear may be justified.

I have only scratched at the doors to the great bank of knowledge required to make a farm like mine near Tovistock a success. And so I have started small and diverse, with cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. My animals eat home-grown, organic corn, oats and hay, and the grass that grows so well in the region. The system works nicely, thanks to the wise management of a resident farmer.

Early in the course of the spread of foot-and-mouth, my neighbour saw his animals destroyed. The news spread like wildfire, and with it the realisation that he was unlikely to be the only casualty. Suddenly the homemade warning signs hanging from every gatepost were replaced by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) hand-outs. Neighbours stopped visiting each other, contractors withdrew from the area and the local fisherman hung up his rod. The animals lay rotting in the fields for days, scavenged by crows and foxes. Yet somehow my animals remained healthy.

Last week, MAFF said the tests on my sheep and those of another neighbour were negative. We were in the clear. We should have been relieved. Instead, the farmers in my three-kilometre ‘zone’ see nothing but clouds hanging over their animals.

To the north, the worried residents of Hatherleigh are asking why MAFF is stockpiling machinery and trucks there. A few miles from there, the Government has invested a reported 7.5 million in a quarry where vast funeral pyres have been constructed with no declared purpose.

Over the border in Cornwall, the people of Launceston are watching with alarm as the Government stockpiles railway sleepers.

Similar stories are tumbling from the lips of anyone you choose to approach. A chartered surveyor, whose unfortunate job it has been to value livestock destined for slaughter, tells me he’s been told by MAFF to be available between June 8 and August 4. The police in some parts of Devon, rumour has it, have been told to put off plans to take leave at around that time, and vets have been put on red alert.

Judy Carless, who briefly dominated the TV news when she confronted Tony Blair over the foot-and-mouth crisis when he visited Exeter in April, says she has ‘reams’ of similar tales, such as Devon hotels being block-booked by MAFF workers. A few days ago, my farm had a strange visit from two soldiers working for MAFF who were just ‘stretching their legs’. The view of my farm manager, not a man prone to wild theories, was they ‘were up to no good’.

In isolation, none of these incidents seems important. But put together, their sheer number suggests the Government has unpleasant plans for Devon. If the slaughter worsens again, then Labour will see that as even more of an opportunity to reshape rural Britain.

Labour’s policy on foot-and-mouth was flawed from the start. Our food system involves more movement of animals than ever before, yet our leaders tried to use the traditional solution of containment. The disease was bound to spread, and mass culling, the Government’s solution to this, meant a multi-billion-pound bill and the end for thousands of farms. All this to ‘protect’ our animals from a relatively mild disease and ensure we would be able to continue selling our meat and dairy products abroad. But since we export almost exactly the same amounts of poultry meat, pork and lamb as we import, we could easily have let overseas stop and relied on and supported our own farmers instead.

Blair’s Government is urban. It embraces multiculturalism, but as my friend Aidan Rankin says: ‘That multiculturalism stops at the city limits. Rural communities do not reflect the tidy New Labour vision of the future, for they are made up of self-reliant men and women.’

The result has been a war against rural people whose stubborn independence and refusal to kowtow to an urban intellectual elite represents everything New Labour detests.

This explains why, for instance, the Government took such an active role in the hunting debate, an issue of no legitimate concern to Westminster. In a leaked Government report on the future of the countryside, Mr Blair made it clear that a quarter of our farmers will leave the land in the next few years - and that the process will be welcomed by Labour. ‘Uneconomic’ farmers will be nudged out with retirement packages, allowing their land to be bought by large firms interested in ever more intensive farming. But what does he mean by ‘uneconomic’? Under the current regime, my neighbours and I occupy ‘uneconomic’ farms. Today the average farmer’s income is down to less than 5,000 a year. This is not the result of Nature tightening her belt. It’s because our leaders think the future is in large-scale industrial agribusinesses aiming at the export market.

To that end the governmnet allocated 80% of farm subsidies to just 20 per cent of farmers, and while the ‘inefficiencies’ of indulging in large-scale production for export —pollution, degenerative disease, massive transport infrastructures and global warming - are ‘externalised’ (paid for by taxpayers), small farmers receive no such help.

The result is agribusinesses appear to be vastly more efficient than they are, and small farmers producing for local consumption seem uneconomic. The truth is, small, diverse farms are more productive and far better at distributing produce more efficiently. How, for instance, can it be more efficient and environmentally friendly to fly butter from New Zealand to Devon than to let people eat the locally produced version?

One thing Blair does seem to think is ‘economic’ is biotechnology. That would explain why Labour has allocated 30 per cent of the food research budget to genetic modification and only two per cent to organic production.

Early in the last century, Stalin waged war against the small farmers of Russia. The result was that millions of them ‘disappeared’. The weapons used were militaristic. In Britain, until recently, they were political. Now, it seems, the line has been crossed.

While our politicians strut from one High Street to the next, the people of rural Britain know their limited votes are not a patch on those of the cities. Voting, regardless for which party, will not save them. That is why, over the course of the next few weeks and months, we will almost certainly see a renewed wave of angry protest.

It is unlikely we will end up in a totalitarian state, but we are moving frighteningly close to it. Imagine being told 20 years ago that measuring food in pounds and ounces would become a criminal offence.

The truth is that this country is fast becoming a uniform, homogeneous place where food is grown, processed and delivered by multinational corporations whose connection to the land is merely coincidental, where traditional pursuits and practices are banned. Britain is being sterilised. Small farmers are among the germs. The real choice in the election is between three donkeys pulling the same cart. But for the sake of democracy, we must at least try to erode the massive lead this Government needs to pursue its hidden agenda. If we are destined to follow a perilous path, then at least let us proceed slowly.