The cost of cheap food – and hot air

As Christmas comes early for thousands of infected turkeys and ducks in Suffolk, a familiar sound – a pained, lowing noise like a cow in labour – will soon be heard echoing across the countryside. A government agriculture minister will be expressing his heartfelt sympathies for the farmers of Britain.

Since the days when Nick Smith was Labour’s man in green wellies, the government has learned that, while it may be urban-minded and generally distrustful of all things rural, it pays to make soothing noises when yet another disaster is affecting the agricultural community. Whether the crisis is foot-and-mouth, the blundering incompetence of Defra over the rural payments scheme, badgers, and bovine TB, supermarkets, avian flu or blue-tongue, a minister will be on hand to declare smoothly how concerned the government is for the health and future of the farming industry.

The lurking suspicion that these emissions from Whitehall are little more than sweet-smelling hot air has been confirmed by events over the past few days. Last week, the Ethical Investment Group of the Church of England, having looked into the behaviour of supermarkets, condemned their ruthless exploitation of their position of power over the farmers who supply them. The voluntary code of practice introduced by the Office of Fair Trading was being ignored, the group reported. There had been much wringing of hands in government over the abuse of market power by supermarkets, but nothing had been done. The cost of food to consumers, not the arm-twisting and sleaze that lay behind it, was what mattered.

Startlingly, the same market-led approach to food and the countryside has been revealed in the details, published by Defra this week, of the government’s own food bill. £1.8bn is spent every year on meat, poultry, vegetables and fruit for public institutions, which include hospitals, the armed forces and prisons.

In the NHS, a grand total of five per cent of fruit supplied is grown in Britain; the prison service receives no British fruit at all. Consumers overwhelmingly choose to buy poultry reared in this country; the Government manages 64 per cent. Ninety per cent of the lamb purchased by the Ministry of Defence is bought abroad, and almost half its beef. A mere 25 per cent of all bacon acquired by the Government for its institutions is supplied by British pig-farmers.

These figures are shaming on several levels. The reason why, say, Asian chicken or Danish bacon is cheaper than that produced here is that the standards of animal welfare in those countries is less rigorous than they are here. Foreign suppliers, in other words, are being rewarded by our own government for producing meat less humanely than British farmers. The farming industry is being betrayed in the one area over which they have direct control. Finally, there is the small matter of the environmental cost of importing food from around the world.

The figures reveal the truth behind the warm words. Rather than investing, as was announced this week, £20m on a showy array of wind turbines and solar panels around Westminster, the Government might consider doing something simpler and more effective – buying British food for public institutions.

One expects greedy policies to hold sway in supermarkets, for whom nothing matters except profits. It is depressing when the same approach – buy food cheap and to hell with the environmental consequences – is embraced by the Government.

* In this golden age of commerce, where we are no longer travellers or patients but always customers, it could only be a matter of time before big business laid its eager hands on that great potential profit centre, health. All the same, it is difficult not to be shocked by the recommendation from the Heart of Birmingham health trust that its 76 GP practices should be abolished and replaced with “super-surgeries” run by such patient-friendly outfits as Tesco, Asda and Virgin.

“We can learn a lot from companies like McDonald’s,” says Sarb Basi of the trust. “Look at what Tesco Express has achieved. That’s what I’d like these new centres to become – a visible brand with a practice that provides good quality service.” Of course. Supermarkets have gobbled up chemists, bookshops, grocers and bakers, so why not squeeze out doctors’ surgeries too? In the area of greed and obesity at least, they will have a sort of expertise.

How to turn birds into cash cows

The billionaire Donald Trump has been explaining why he wants to destroy a large part of unspoilt Aberdeenshire coast to make the biggest golf complex in the world. Trump, left, has argued that objections by what he calls the Royal Society of Birds are groundless.

About 25,000 birds are shot already in Scotland; on his golf courses, the only birdies being shot will be on the greens. On his website, Trump offers some advice for those who want to become rich. There’s cash in the environment, he has discovered. “This ecologically conscious trend is something to seriously consider now,” he writes.

Is this the man the planners of Aberdeenshire really want to take control of their coastline?