ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
Date:  7 March 2001


" It is to the great credit of modern farming that a cheap food supply has been maintained under the constant attack of Nature, black in tooth and rot."
        - Prof Philip Stott, in a letter to the Observer

"The real price of cheap food is a sickly, obese population and a chemically maintained countryside where disease flourishes, while habitat and species diversity is destroyed."
        -Jeanette Winterson, Guardian columnist
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Three  items:

1.    The real price of cheap food - Jeanette Winterson, Guardian
2.    Foot and Mouth: an economic disease - Jim O'Connor to ngin
3.    Organic farming -- the answer to Europe's crisis? - REUTERS
1.     The Guardian (London) 6  March 2001 (Features) -: Jeanette Winterson

I have bought organic food since the days when you had to call a New Age hippy from a phone box and haggle over a cabbage. Before that, I was vegetarian because I hate factory farming, its treatment of animals and its effect on the land. I am used to hearing the usual blather about how expensive organic food is and how it can never be more than a niche market for cranks.

The fact is, Ispend less on food than my sensible' friends, because I buy only raw materials and I cook. Now, I'm not claiming to be Marguerite Patten and this is not an essay on how to whip
up a nutritious meal for six using only a tin of Spam and an elastic band. What I am claiming is that most people's shop ping habits cost them more than food farmed sustainably would, if our shopping habits could be changed.

Try this experiment - junk all the ready meals and snack foods, decide to eat meat only two or three times a week, and buy the best of everything. You will save a fortune. One of the most fascinating things about Channel 4's 1940s House was what happened to Mrs Hymer after the series ended. She did not go back to supermarket shopping and she no longer bought convenience foods. The result was a saving of pounds 70 a week for a family of five.

The fact is that women are mostly still in charge of shopping and cooking. This gives us huge power. We can change food production in Britain faster than governments or legislation. What we
demand will determine what supermarkets buy. Something has to happen - and soon. On the back of BSE comes foot and mouth. Not long ago it was E coli and salmonella.

Farming is not a business in which costs can be cut indefinitely. The real price of cheap food is a sickly, obese population and a chemically maintained countryside where disease flourishes, while habitat and species diversity is destroyed. The bucket-loads of antibiotics fed to animals have not proved protection against the unnatural way they are farmed. Nick Brown says he wants to look again at the effects of intensive farming. The big issue is going to be cheap food. Ask yourself this: why will you pay 50p for a chocolate bar and expect six eggs for the same price? Food has become something we seem to feel should not cost money.

To keep prices low and margins high, supermarkets import half of what we eat. I live in the Cotswolds, next door Hereford produces wonderful beef. My local Tesco only sells organic beef from Argentina. How does that help British farmers? How does that support a rural economy? It is true that beef ranched abroad can be produced more cheaply than anything we can manage in Britain - or so it seems.

Earth scientist James Lovelock has worked out the true cost of a rainforest hamburger. He arrived at this figure by ruling out all the economically invisible benefits rainforests provide - habitat, livelihood for indigenous people, etc - and focused on the fact that rainforests act as giant cooling systems for the whole planet. He then calculated the cost of providing this service technologically. He divided that cost per hectare of forest, averaged the number of cattle ranched on each cleared hectare, then worked out how many hamburgers could be got from each animal. So next time you pay 99p, remember the Dollars 65 the planet has paid for you. The implications of the way we
eat will be problems our children will have to solve.

Seventy-five per cent of the earth's fertile land is farmed. I do not believe more chemicals, drugs and GM crops are the answer. The answer starts with a quiet revolution - what we are going to eat and how we are going to pay for it. We will have to pay, if not out of our pockets, then
out of our bodies. We will pay with our health and with the health of the planet. Purse power is not just a middle-class solution, but as the middle classes are better paid and better informed, they are in a strong position to drive the changes in shopping habits that are the only thing that will force supermarkets to alter their destructive buying policies. When Tony Blair accused supermarkets of holding farmers in an armlock', he was right. The supermarkets in turn blame the consumer -
forgetting the 1960s advertising adage: The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.'

Now she has her own bank account. Go shop. This column will appear fortnightly.
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2.    Foot and Mouth: an economic disease
       (e-mail to ngin)

Thanks for the Independent article on FMD - a good one. In a similar vein I sent this letter to our Irish Times last Thurs. Despite a good batting average with letters to the press they didn't publish it or anything like it from others. Have you heard the latest terms from our utterly paranoiad MinAg re FMD, Fortress Ireland, Ring of Steel ( journalist exposed it later as Sieve of Steel) and Treasonous Press?

Kindest Jim
Dear Sir
As the prospect of mountains of burning animal bodies looms here I have some questions. If the FMD virus is not a killer of either animals or humans and is endemic in many parts of the world anyway, why are these draconian measures necessary? We all accept that in the case of serious
threats to human health from BSE, TB and Brucellosis etc drastic measures are necessary (and not always very effective!). But there is no health risk with FMD; there is only an economic one. There must be figures to support this economic argument. Where are they? Could the government and its agencies supply us with these? And could the figures include a broad, cost/benefit analysis, including a valuation of the stress and loss caused to the farming community?

I'm quite sure if they did there would be little or no financial justification for the current, almost mediaeval, anti-plague paranoia that abounds. I suspect the latter is a legacy of times when our export meat trade was totally dependant on the disease-free(hah!) UK market that we then needed - at almost any cost.

Perhaps EU members should discuss whether it would be more preferable for those countries free of the virus (at present!) to accept a certain level of this relatively unthreatening disease and control it through vaccination and other methods instead.

Another point; should not all visitors from the UK and their possessions be dipped (total immersion - as with sheep) in disinfectant if we were really serious about keeping out this highly contagious virus? Scuffing feet in straw is surely not very effective. Or could there be an
economic argument against this?

Jim O'Connor,
Hungry Hill,
Co. Cork,
Tel. 027 70717
3.    Organic farming -- the answer to Europe's crisis?

"The cost of containing and cleaning up the messes means that less money is available to promote organic farming. It also means that consumers  are paying a hefty additional amount for their food outside the supermarket... Similarly, consumers don't pay at the till for the clean-up of the artificial fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional but not in organic farming. They pay that in their water bill. So while organic food takes a bigger chunk from consumers' wallets than the conventional variety of produce at the supermarket, that is only part of the picture."


Organic farming -- the answer to Europe's food  crisis? (Reuters)

Is cheap food  worth the risk? Or is organic the answer? Across Europe,  politicians struggling to end food crises ranging from mad  cow to foot-and-mouth disease are questioning conventional  farming practices and searching for alternatives.

Last  week, foot-and-mouth disease spread from England to  Scotland and Northern Ireland, prompting other European  countries to tighten regulations, taking steps to disinfect  travellers and vehicles from the British Isles. European  consumers, who have already weathered a raft of food scares  including E-coli, campylobacter, salmonella and dioxin,  were badly shaken last autumn when the mad cow, or BSE,  crisis spread from Britain to the continent.

Given all the  bad news, they have grown wary of anything "unnatural" and  have shunned genetically modified (GM) foods, which are  spliced with foreign genes to help them resist drought or  ward off pests. Organic methods -- which strive for  sustainable farming and quality food - differ from the  intensive farming blamed for the spread of crises such as  mad cow, a rain-wasting disease whose the human form has  killed more than 80 people.

They put emphasis on animal welfare, soil fertility and creating a self-sustaining  system. And that sounds better and better to many consumers  and political leaders.


With television and newspapers carrying pictures of  thousands of animal carcasses being burned across Britain  and mainland Europe, politicians are looking for a solution - and a villain. Farming has become increasingly intensive  in the search for cheaper food. The big retail food chains  and supermarkets want large amounts of produce at  competitive prices.

In Britain, five supermarket chains  account for more than 80 percent of all grocery sales and their profits exceed those of all of the country's small  farmers. Prime Minister Tony Blair took to the road last  week and accused supermarkets of being part of the problem,  saying they were making profits at the expense of farmers.

"The supermarkets have pretty much of an armlock on you,"  Blair told a public meeting in Gloucester in the west of  England. "We need to go back to the table and work this out  on a long-term basis," said Blair, who is said to be  considering delaying the call for a general election  because of restrictions on movement aimed at curbing the  foot-and-mouth crisis.


Europe,  which long felt itself to be immune from the BSE food  crisis, is considering its options. EU Farm Commissioner  Franz Fischler has announced plans to encourage less  intensive farming. In Germany, Farm Minister Renate  Kuenast, a Green, unveiled plans in February to raise  organic farming to 20 percent over 10 years from 2.6 percent in Europe's largest economy. But last week the  Finance Ministry said that extra costs linked to managing  the country's outbreak of mad cow disease may not be  covered by revenues planned in the 2001 federal budget.


The cost of containing and  cleaning up the messes means that less money is available  to promote organic farming. It also means that consumers  are paying a hefty additional amount for their food outside  the supermarket -- in the taxes devoted to compensate  farmers and in subsidies directed at conventional farmers  in the first place. Similarly, consumers don't pay at the  till for the clean-up of the artificial fertilizers and  pesticides used in conventional but not in organic farming.  They pay that in their water bill.

So while organic food  takes a bigger chunk from consumers' wallets than the  conventional variety of produce at the supermarket, that is  only part of the picture. Besides, ever cheaper food from  the shelf pressures producers and processors. Food costs  have dropped to some 10 percent of people's income from 30  percent after World War Two.


"Cheap food actually means higher risk," said Emma  Parkin, spokesperson for Britain's Soil Association,  founded in 1946 to promote organic farming. "Some might cut  corners, or import cheaper (lower quality) produce."

But demand for organic produce is growing as consumer  worries mount. At present, some 5 percent of the European  retail food market is organic, with Sweden leading the pack  at 11 percent of the land organically farmed. In Britain,  the average weekly expenditure on organic food rose to  20.76 pounds ($30.54) in May 2000 from 12.66 a year  earlier, according to a report by Taylor Nelson Sofres. The  number of families buying organic during the period rose to  57.4
percent from 43 percent. "We cannot continue to have ever  cheaper food," Parkin said, adding "Is it worth ... the  risk?"

REUTERS [Entered March 6, 2001]
*  *  *
The Observer 04/03/2001, UK (Online)

Sacrifices on the  altar of cheap food  - We slaughter sick animals only to save  profits
writes Matthew Fort Matthew Fort -  March 4,  2001 The Observer

Last week we killed 25,000 cattle, pigs and sheep. Why? Foot-and-mouth disease is no threat to  humans. It isn't much threat to the animals either. Most  would recover if the disease were let to run its natural  course. The official arguments in favour of the slaughter  policy are entirely economic, and designed to preserve the  myth of cheap food and protect the interests of an elite of  large-scale farmers.

In 2000 the United Kingdom  animal-related export trade, in the form of meat, live  animals and breeding stock, amounted to more than £1  billion. This is all based on the UK being designated a  disease-free zone. This was a policy we persuaded other  European governments to adopt in the early 1990s, and to  accept mass slaughter as the means to that end.

These were  also the arguments used by government officials to justify  killing 250,000 animals during the foot-and-mouth outbreak  of 1922-24, and every outbreak since. Nothing has advanced  in government thinking in 80 years, in spite of advances in  vaccination and other medical techniques, some of them  pioneered at the Government's own specialised FMD  laboratory in Pirbright, set up in the wake of the 1922-24  debacle.

Indeed, vaccination was adopted by some countries  as a means of controlling the disease, but, in the  Alice-in-Blunderland world of international trade, the use  of vaccination meant losing disease-free status. Just how  little official thinking has advanced is scarcely  surprising given the cosy relationship between the upper  echelons of the farming and food production industries and
> government departments.

For smaller farmers, too, the  arguments in favour of slaughter are compelling. Were they  allowed to recover, the animals would be thinner and less  productive. Profit margins are now so small, the farming  industry has no incentive to keep such animals alive, and  as farmers get paid compensation for their dead animals, it  makes more commercial sense to slaughter them than it does  to keep them alive.

The commercial imperatives of an élite and the deceitful chimera of cheap food have dictated  agricultural policy and the structure of farming for 50  years, with devastating consequences for farming, for its  products and for us. We consumers have gone along with it,  as we have gone along with all the other consequences of  cheap-food policies: centralised production and retailing,  and the control of the food chain by a few very powerful  companies. Bargain-basement beef, nicely trimmed and  packaged; cut-price new potatoes in December; and  butter-basted chickens at 95p per kg ensure we don't pay  too much attention to the means by which these titbits come  to us.

This situation may be the natural consequence of the  drift away from the land to the towns that started in the  nineteenth century. Now few people have much idea of how  our food is produced, and fewer still care much about it,  until some hideous complication like BSE or E.coli comes  along to frighten us all. And in this vacuum of ignorance,  terrible practices have been tolerated because they  delivered the promise of cheap food.

In range, quality and  cost the situation is a great deal better than it was 50  years ago, but we are only beginning to appreciate the true  price. The central flaw in post-war agricultural policy is  that it is based on the principle that more is better. That  policy is based on a flawed precept that agriculture is  just another industry like computers, steel or banking, and  should be subject to the same disciplines.

Farming isn't  the same. As far as this country is concerned, more is not  better. It is worse, for the animals, for the farms and for  us. It is rum that a society that engages enthusiastically  in the debate on fox hunting, a marginal case of animal  cruelty at the worst, should tolerate, not simply the  genocide of thousands of animals, but also the far greater  cruelties of contemporary agro-industry. Our silence has  been bought by the promise of cheap food.

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