Monbiot Vision Flawed

BY DAVID EYLES

Upland farming has come under attack recently from a number of sources. Criticism is often levelled at hill farmers because they require large public subsidies to keep them going. Grumbling is also directed at hill farmers because they are perceived to be responsible for ‘overgrazing’ and thus denuding the upland landscape of its ability to hold back large quantities of water during periods of heavy rain. This is alleged to cause or exacerbate flooding downstream in urban areas. But the most vocal challenge comes from George Monbiot of The Guardian in his book Feral∗. In this book, George Monbiot explains that our uplands are no longer clad in trees as they were thousands of years ago. No longer  are our rivers and forests teeming with so much fish and game that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were able to pluck it out at will. George mourns the loss of this Pre-Arcadian idyll and so is agitating for our uplands to be afforested with native trees and populated with wolves, lynx and beavers, just as they were two thousand years ago.

However, there are a number of practical, environmental and ethical difficulties with Monbiot’s vision.

The impact of upland farmers upon their local environs is much more subtle than at first appears. It can be briefly summarised as in Figure 1 below:

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Figure 1 – Venn diagram of farmers as influencing three aspects of the local area, as well as producing food.

From this, it can be seen that farmers affect economics, culture and the natural environment as well as contributing to the nation’s consumption of food.

This first post in the series will look at the way in which upland farmers affect the economy locally, nationally and internationally.

In brutal economic terms, UK agriculture struggles to produce much more than 0.6% of total UK GDP (World Bank figures 2004 – 2015). The livestock part of this figure is an even smaller share. As we become more numerous, urbanised and affluent, this percentage will inevitably diminish further. Or so it would seem, provided food continues to be considered as a mere commodity which can be purchased elsewhere whenever the need arises. However, in strategic terms, UK agriculture still provides just under 60% of the nation’s food. As our population rises, in common with that in the rest of the world, the cost of imported food will only rise, leaving UK-produced food ever more important in terms of cost – especially for the lowest paid in our society.

Because of the low percentage contribution by agriculture to our GDP, there has been a tendency by politicians to dismiss farming and suggest that the 70% of the UK land area which is farmed can simply be turned over to ‘nature conservation’ – a glorified country park if you will – and that farmers become mere providers of ‘environmental goods’. However, the contribution that agriculture makes to the UK economy is a little more subtle than an isolated category on government statistics.

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Figure 2 – The cone of economic dependency upon livestock farmers.

Figure 2 is a conceptual sketch of the dependency of other parts of the economy upon farmers. For example, food processing dwarfs agricultural output in financial terms, but is  entirely dependent upon agriculture. That is, the value added to food as it leaves the farm gate is considerable by the time it is sold to the consumer. Food processing is the largest part of our manufacturing sector; whilst that in turn is much smaller than the food retailing sector – which is a very large component of our services sector. So it is apparent that the tiny value of livestock (and other farm commodities) as they leave the farm gate  don’t just contribute, but generate a very large part of our overall economy.

In broad terms, that is the view at national level. But farmers should also be looked at in terms of what they contribute to the local economy and how they interact with it:

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Figure 3 – An economic matrix generated by the upland farmer. Directions of arrows indicate the direction of travel of money from the farmer outwards.

Whilst this diagram is designed around upland farmers, similar models apply to farmers, whether livestock or arable, in the rest of the country. A Fenland farmer has just as much impact upon the local economy as a Welsh hill farmer. What matters is that the money that originates with the farmer, pushes outwards into the rest of the economy, gathering added value as it goes. Much of this money, and added value, stays within the local economy within a web of interactions which revolve around the services required by the farmer.

As money circulates within the economy, growing with each transaction, that wealth is mostly retained within the local area. Often, the rural uplands are low income and/or deprived areas. Although upland farmers are heavily subsidised, this taxpayers’ money is well spent because it helps communities which would otherwise be considerably more impoverished than they already are. Furthermore, the jobs entailed in the agricultural and related services are all productive and as such are intrinsically satisfying from a n employment and psychological point of view.

The removal of upland farmers (by virtue of closing down their subsidies, by mass afforestation of the uplands, or by other forms of ‘rewilding’) would leave a huge hole in the local economy which would be extremely difficult to plug in any way, other than by greater social security payments. This creates a dependent and severely depressed society and becomes a recipe for a political vacuum. Furthermore, there is a greater risk in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland of calls for further breakup of the UK.

∗ Monbiot G, (2013) Feral: Penguin Books, London.

David Eyles spent the first twenty years of his career as a quantity surveyor in civil engineering. He started work on the Thames Barrier Project in the mid 1970s and from there moved on to building hardened aircraft shelters in East Anglia – those being the days of a rather warm Cold War. On RAF Lakenheath, he was once observed nearly slithering his mini under the wheels of a taxiing F111 loaded up with tactical nuclear weapons. If nothing else, it would have been one helluva motor insurance claim and a sense of humour loss by the US Air Force. Later, he went to Nigeria for two years to build roads and see first hand what corruption can do to bring down an intrinsically prosperous country. There he had his first experience of seeing British overseas aid being wasted. He returned to the UK and attempted to write a novel, but was instead diverted into bird ringing and spent far too many nights chasing radio tagged Nightjars around Wareham Forest at dangerously high speed. By a mysterious route, then fell into farming via six worn out commercial hens; and wound up with a flock of 350 Dorset Down ewes and forty Traditional Hereford cattle. He then divorced, changed his life and arrived in Cornwall to find solace in the pedantry of hard data, wonderful pubs, good people and writing. His other interest include walking; some very poor quality photography; the philosophy of consciousness as it pertains to animals and humans; and a certain amount of politics. David’s writing can be found here

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