enterprised a railroad through the valley," John Ruskin charged the railway
companies in 1889. "The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now every
fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at
Buxton." God knows what he would have made of the 21st century livestock
every sheep in Northumberland can be at Devon in half a day, and every sheep in
Devon at Northumberland. And, as the government discovered to its astonishment
this week, their diseases travel with them. Why is this happening? Almost
everyone, radical commentators included, agrees that it’s because the public
wants "cheap food". They’re wrong.
no doubt that the modern food economy encourages long distance transport.
Between 1965 and 1998, the international trade in food tripled, to 600 million
metric tonnes. In Britain the transport of milk has increased 30-fold since
1980. To meet the demands of the global economy, livestock hauliers routinely
break the rules requiring them to rest, feed and water the animals they are
transporting, in some cases all the way from Britain to Beirut.
of one thing we can be sure: none of this has anything to do with the needs of
consumers. This myth can be dismissed by means of a complex research procedure
called going shopping. In my home town, independent butchers selling local meat
charge some 30% less than the superstores. Even the organic lamb on sale in the
farmers’ market marginally undercuts the poisoned produce the big chains sell.
Yet the superstores, as they often boast, are far more efficient than small
shops. They exert an iron grip on their suppliers, they employ just one fifth of
the staff per unit of turnover, they enjoy, in most places, lower business
rates. Consumers have not benefitted from these economies. The current epidemic
of foot and mouth is the result of structural market changes introduced solely
to safeguard the profits of the superstores.
buy, for example, only from the biggest farmers, employing the fewest staff.
This means that more animals are crammed together, with fewer people to check
their state of health. They lobby to ensure that the burden of regulation falls
not on them and their suppliers, but on small business. This is one of the
reasons why so many local abattoirs have collapsed in Britain, forcing farmers
to send their animals ever further afield. Ironically, the food poisoning which
helped justify the tighter inspection regime is mostly the result of the large
scale agro-industry the supermarkets have encouraged: the sins of the giants are
visited upon the dwarves.
have lobbied too, to be allowed to cheat their customers, by changing the rules
on provenance. "Scotch beef" and "Welsh lamb" now come from
animals pastured in Scotland or Wales for just two weeks. They are trucked all
over the United Kingdom so that the stores can change their designation and thus
raise the price of their meat. This is not about cheap food. It’s about
most importantly, by trading directly with the big producers they control, the
big chains have cut out the middleman. The result is that livestock markets have
disappeared as swiftly as the slaughterhouses. Now, in order to sell their
animals to independent butchers, farmers in some parts of the country must drive
them hundreds of miles. The superstores themselves have centralised their
distribution networks, trucking livestock from Land’s End to John O’Groats and
the butchered meat back to Land’s End.
profits are extracted only at enormous cost to ourselves. The billions they make
are matched by the billions the taxpayer spends on road building and
maintenance, environmental remediation, hospital bills for the victims of food
poisoning and, of course, mass slaughter programmes. The animals pay too, by
means of the appalling conditions in which they are reared and trucked. Yet the
savings the supermarkets make are not passed to the farmers, and they are not
passed to consumers.
power of the superstores ensures that others must be blamed for the disasters
they precipitate. The farmers being investigated in Northumberland may well have
neglected their animals, but since the big chains started buying their pork from
gigantic industrial batteries, the farmgate price has collapsed, forcing the
remaining producers to spend ever less time and money on their pigs. Badgers are
blamed for bovine TB, while the mass transit of infectious cattle is overlooked.
And the underlying problem, we are universally informed, is us.