A Vegan Agricultural Policy?

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By O. Lavrador

The Vested Interests Lobby
The idea of a vegan agricultural policy begs the question why have an agricultural policy at all. Why not open agriculture up to market forces? That would certainly be the logical conclusion of the trend in government policy over the last twenty years. But nobody, not even the most blinkered champion of the free market ideology, has so far dared to remove all elements of control and protection from the farming industry. This is not only because of the powerful political lobby of farmers and country landowners defending their economic interests. There is also a very substantial lobby of people whose interest is sentimental rather than economic – mostly environmentalists and nature lovers. These people believe that the continuance of farming roughly in its traditional form is vital to the preservation of the countryside and that farmers need support to achieve this end.

Blood Sports and Olde England

I have quite deliberately used the word sentimental to describe the attitude of these people because their standpoint is based on their feelings about the natural environment. They want to preserve what they regard as the quintessential elements of the English countryside – from the patchwork of fields bounded by hedges or dry stone walls to the broad sweeps of open moorland – together with the flora and fauna associated with them. They argue that the maintenance of this type of scenery is dependent largely on farming and to a lesser extent on the practice of blood sports – the hunting of deer, foxes, grouse and pheasants. There is a lot of truth in this point of view.

There is practically no virgin territory left in this country. The original landscape was covered in forest, which has been almost entirely destroyed. What we have now is a landscape that was largely created by human activities – mainly by farming. Its preservation over centuries has depended on the application of traditional farming methods and on the reservation of large tracts of land for hunting purposes. So to this extent the sentimentalists are right. But is this countryside so important to conserve? They argue, for example, that, if, as would happen in a free market situation, hill farming became financially unviable and closed down, the upland pastures that it maintains would revert to scrub. But what is so terrible about that?

The development of scrub is after all only the first stage in a process of natural re-afforestation – a reversion to the original landscape before human intervention commenced. The wildlife characteristic of the upland pastures would disappear, but other species would establish themselves in its place, conforming to the new environment. It is surprising that the environmentalists who are so concerned about our countryside do not recognise the great benefits to the ecology of this planet that such afforestation would bring.

Hill Farming Must Go

But what has all this got to do with vegan agriculture? Well, it is precisely these conservation issues that are used as one of the arguments for the continuation of animal farming. It is argued that, to preserve the landscape, hill farming must go on and hill farming means essentially rearing animals for meat, because arable farming is not possible in those conditions. Similar reasons are given for grazing downlands with sheep and grazing water meadows with cattle. The vegan counter-argument must be that such habitats are not worth preserving and have to be superseded by others (1).

In the uplands, farmers are paid headage payments on every animal – particularly sheep they run on the hill- this policy has led to an explosion in sheep numbers over the past 20 years leading to massive overgrazing in some of the most beautiful hill country in Britain. Thousands of acres of heather moorland have been damaged or destroyed…At the same time few farmers have seen any benefit. The system has encouraged the development of capital intensive, highly mechanised agriculture with most of the subsidies going to the biggest farmers (3).

So a vegan agricultural policy for this country would involve among other things, the end of farming on marginal land, forced by the removal of the current subsidies, and, where possible, the establishment of forest on such land – either naturally or by the deliberate planting of trees. Forestry would provide work for some of the people displaced from agriculture, but other employment would have to be provided too. The end to hill farming would be very distressing to those whose families have been involved in it for generations, so there would be a considerable short-term social cost, as there always is when major economic changes take place. The coal-mining, shipbuilding and sea fishing industries have all undergone this kind of upheaval in the last twenty-five years, not always for the right reasons. But such changes are sometimes necessary.

Economic Considerations

So far we have considered the conservation argument against vegan agriculture. But there is a much more powerful argument that we have to refute – the economic one. A vegan agricultural policy has to deal with the fact that, under present conditions, vegan organic farming is uneconomic. According to the research done by Elm Farm Research Centre its profitability is dependent on the payment of set-aside grants (2). Since most people agree that set-aside, as it is presently practised, has been a failure, it is unlikely that these grants will continue for much longer. So what future has vegan farming got?

One answer could be to ensure the continuation of set-aside – not in its present form, where a farmer gets rewarded for leaving a field to grow weeds for a year and then wiping then out with herbicide, but in a form that encourages farmers to fallow the land in a way that improves the soil. However, it might be seen as inappropriate to use the set-aside programme, which was designed solely to reduce agricultural production, to encourage vegan farming. Instead of set-aside a direct area- based subsidy could be paid to farmers who put land under legumes for a minimum of, say, three years.

But of course it can also be argued that farmers should not have to rely on direct subsidies from the government anyway, that farming should be financially self-supporting. The only way to achieve this would be to make food more expensive. There is a strong argument for saying that food in this country is far too cheap. Expenditure on food has a relatively low priority in household budgets and consumers shop for food on price more than on quality. On the average only 14% of household expenditure now goes on food compared with 35% in 1947.

Redistribution Of Wealth

So there is a good case for raising food prices. Most people in this country could easily afford to pay more. However, with the current huge disparity in personal incomes that exists, those at the lower end of the income scale could be very hard hit by such a measure and there could be a sharp increase in the already alarming amount of malnutrition among poor people. So a vegan agricultural policy could not include such a proposal without also including measures to transfer wealth and move towards an equalisation of incomes.

In the long term we have to shift the focus of the debate about the future of agriculture from economics to efficiency. Whether a form of agriculture is financially viable or not depends on the agricultural policy of the current government and on market prices for inputs and outputs. These factors are very unstable and can vary greatly from year to year. What really matters from the point of view of the survival of the human species is not how financially viable farming is but how efficient it is.

Efficiency Of Vegan Farming

So a vegan agricultural policy needs to favour efficient agriculture, especially since vegan farming is itself far more efficient than meat farming as currently practised in this country. But rewarding farmers for their efficiency would mean turning the whole system upside down, because at the moment the greatest rewards go to the most industrialised methods of agriculture, which are highly inefficient, whereas primitive farming, which is far more efficient, cannot even support a living for anyone in our culture.

So, to sum up, a vegan agricultural policy for this country might involve, among other things,:

1. Removing subsidies from hill farmers and from meat farmers in general;
2. Introducing subsidies to encourage the use of three-or four-year legumes in rotations;
3. Taking measures to reward farmers for their efficiency;
4. Greatly increasing food prices;
5. Ensuring a more equitable distribution of incomes among the population as a whole.

Points 3 and 4 could possibly be achieved at one go by introducing a massive tax on fossil fuel inputs into agriculture. This would at the same time push up farm-gate prices and favour farmers using vegan and low-technology methods.

(1) Such arguments are even used by some people to justify blood sports, for example, grouse shooting to preserve moorland. It goes without saying that the disappearance of these landscapes is preferable to the continuation of such barbaric practices.

(2) These are grants paid to farmers under the European Common Agricultural Policy in return for them taking part of the land out of crop production for a short period, usually a year.

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