Putting flesh on the bones of a proper farming policy

SPOT the difference: The Tories call for a “new age of agriculture”, with an ombudsman to protect farmers from bullying by big supermarket chains.

Aidan Semmens

SPOT the difference: The Tories call for a “new age of agriculture”, with an ombudsman to protect farmers from bullying by big supermarket chains.

Labour launches a 20-year food strategy, calling on farmers to move with the times.

Put like that, it might seem the Conservatives are more the farmer's friends than the current government.

The apparent difference is traditional and class-based. Tories for the landowners, Labour for the masses.

But actually the positions taken by the two parties aren't that far apart.

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And there's no doubt that a new, coherent long-term approach to agricultural policy is needed.

Whether Labour or the Tories have either the courage or the clarity of thinking to produce it is another matter.

Some protection of food producers from the money-driven ruthlessness of the supermarket giants is long overdue.

Appointing an ombudsman might be a small step in the right direction. A very small, tottering and unreliable step.

There is some truth in what the supermarkets' PR people always claim, that it is “the market” - in other words everyone who goes through the checkouts - that ultimately makes the decisions.

But only some truth.

It ignores the vast power of big-budget advertising and peer-group pressure to sway the consumer's behaviour.

And it ignores the way the supermarkets manipulate the market by forcing smaller shops out of business. Which then enables them to set almost everyone's purchasing agenda.

But here's a thought.

If one Facebook group can make an obscure 18-year-old punk rock record the Christmas No.1, maybe we could organise ourselves to change the market in food too.

On the face of it, environment secretary Hilary Benn wants farmers to achieve the near-impossible.

Over the next 20 years, he says, they must both increase production and lessen their impact on the environment.

Sounds like a tough ask.

And if we consumers - through the supermarkets and fast-food joints - go on demanding ever cheaper, ever bigger, ever shinier food, it might indeed be an impossible circle to square.

But there is an answer. And it's we, all of us together, who can provide it. By changing our buying and eating habits.

Sir Paul McCartney wants us to save the world by going vegetarian. It's an idea that has a lot to be said for it.

I wouldn't go quite so far. But we certainly don't need to eat flesh at every meal. Or every day.

If we all ate a lot less meat we'd be healthier.

When we did eat meat, it would be meat of better quality.

Farmers wouldn't be forced to mass-produce unhealthy animals under conditions of intolerable over-crowding and cruelty.

Greenhouse-gas emissions would arguably be substantially reduced.

Because it takes so much more land and time to produce meat than it does grain and vegetables, one man's meat is another man's starvation.

If more of the grain grown went directly to feed people, not to rear pigs, beef or poultry, it would be possible to feed us all.

Not just all of us in Britain, but potentially everyone in the world.

If the rich of the world - and that includes us - weren't so greedy, no one need starve.

Now that, surely, would be a policy worth voting for. And shopping for.

IF I lived in Wootton Bassett I certainly wouldn't want an Islamist march coming down my street.

But then I don't think I'd be too keen on all the military and funerary parades that pass through either.

Denouncing the protest plans by Anjem Choudary, the town's mayor said he didn't want anything “political” to happen there.

As if the flag-waving, trumpet-blowing honouring of every dead soldier flown home from Afghanistan wasn't political.

It seems reasonable to point out that many more Afghans than British or American soldiers are dying in that country.

And that the presence of the troops there is a political decision.

As would be the relatively free way most British Muslims enjoy their lives.

Choudary is right to want an end to the cycle of violence in Afghanistan. He is right that the innocent die there for political reasons, and that the stated reason for our troops to be there keeps changing.

But the irony is that if Anjem Choudary were taking the political decisions here, the right to peaceful protest would be a thing of the past.

When he talks about Islam meaning “submission to the will of God”, what he really means is submission to his particular idea of what that will might be.

No wonder the Muslim Council of Britain denounces his group as fringe extremists.

Because it's ordinary Muslims he wants to submit to his repression first.