|AN ECONOMICALLY SUSTAINABLE RURAL ECONOMY
By Alistair McConnachie and first published in a Sovereignty Special Report distributed free with the March 2002 issue.
The response to the Foot and Mouth crisis last year - the mass slaughter policy - was symptomatic of a fundamentally unsustainable, industrial, factory-style approach to farming.
The justification for the slaughter policy was to achieve "disease free" status in order to re-open the export markets. It was a perfect example of our dependence on a globalised economy. We were killing animals in order to remain dependent upon the very system which was destroying us.
Not so very long ago, animals and vegetables which were raised and grown in the local community, were sold locally and consumed locally. That was local production for local consumption. Now, what happens? Food is transported massive distances, packaged, shipped abroad - probably shipped back again - to appear in a supermarket, at the other end of the country.
This process has been driven by the globalised economy, finance, supermarkets and agribusiness. Most farmers know that this process is unsustainable - they don't like it, but they have to work with it.
The farmers are the victims of the system. They've had to adjust their farming methods just to survive. It's the economics of survival. If there was an economically sustainable alternative that was politically possible, most would gladly have it.
So, let's set our mind to proposing some solutions.
Trade liberalisation has to be challenged. Economic globalisation has to be replaced with economic localisation. Only then can we ensure food sovereignty and an economically sustainable rural economy.
In the short-term, however - in the here and now - we need immediate financial support to keep our heads above water.
We need a large injection of funds into the rural community which is aimed at combating rural poverty, promoting local businesses, local shops, and keeping open local post offices and schools, developing rural skills, subsidising fuel, building the rural transport infrastructure, encouraging local produce markets, and local farmers markets, and restraining the power of supermarkets.
For the farming community, we need an injection of funds through support mechanisms targeted towards a programme which encourages national self-sufficiency, small farms, mixed farming, land fertility, young farmers, farm start-ups, rural employment, local production and distribution networks, organic production, food quality, and projects which protect the environment.
In other words, farmers were able to make a living three times more easily in 1948 than today (p.115). This has happened as the prices farmers receive have decreased, as costs of production, and the amount of debt carried by farmers have risen.
Today, around 25% of all income from farming in the UK goes to pay bank interest charges. The overall level of indebtedness in the industry is vast. No wonder farmers need subsidies when they have such huge debt commitments to meet. Solutions to this indebtedness must be found. A policy of managed decline is not acceptable.
As a result of the Foot and Mouth crisis, banks are calling in loans and lowering overdraft limits. The government should intervene to prevent banks ruining the industry.
Farmers, especially, need long-term loans. Whereas an industrialist can turn around a product quickly, a farmer has to wait nine months before he gets a return on the seed, or two years before the calves are fat enough to provide an income. You need a long term finance facility if you're a farmer.
Low interest, or no interest, loans could be granted. There should be a moratorium on debt repayments and, we could add, a moratorium on National Insurance payments.
Let's remember that the money the banks loaned to the farmers was created out of nothing in the first place, anyway.
IMPORT TARIFFS AND QUOTAS ARE ESSENTIAL TO PROTECT HOME
TIGHTER CUSTOM CONTROLS ARE ESSENTIAL TO PROTECT AGAINST
The government tells us that illegal meat imports brought Foot and Mouth into the country. Well, if this is true, and considering that Foot and Mouth cost the taxpayers at least £billion last year, and considering that we don't want another outbreak, then what are we presently doing about it?
If there is not an immediate plan on the table to invest millions of pounds in tighter custom controls then heads should be rolling! There should be, at the very least (a) an immediate closure of the loophole which allows anyone to bring in 1kg of meat in their luggage for personal consumption (b) containers located at all points of entry in order to dispose safely of any food and (c) huge investment in resources, including the use of sniffer dogs.
DON'T DEPEND ON THE EXPORT TRADE
Many British farmers remain dependent on export markets because supermarkets buy cheaper meat from countries with low wages, and low health and environmental standards.
Firstly, it doesn't make economic sense to base policy entirely upon achieving disease-free status, because disease-free status is a highly vulnerable condition, and can be lost at any time.
Alternative polices are needed which will enable us to maintain a successful farming industry, whether or not we have disease-free status.
Secondly, there's no telling when these export markets may collapse altogether.
Alternative polices are needed which will enable us to maintain a successful farming industry, without having to depend so crucially on the export markets. That means we must look at new ways of exploiting domestic demand.
DEVELOP THE HOME MARKETS
We import more beef, lamb and pork than we export. This means there is an untapped home market for national produce.
Farmers Markets, and local box schemes, however, have been growing successfully throughout Britain. These Markets are able to provide quality food below supermarket prices. These Markets also boost the local rural and tourist industries. We should have one in every town in Britain, and subsidies should be directed appropriately.