Lie of the Land, C4 documentary, 3/5/07

May 5, 2007 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

On Thursday night, Channel 4 showed a really interesting documentary called ‘The Lie of the Land’ by Molly Dineen about modern farming (of which there is a very good review in The Guardian). She started making a film about how the hunting ban was affecting rural life, but ended up exploring the sad state to which British agriculture has been reduced by a detched, urbanised society and government driven by market forces. It was immensely moving and thought-provoking, and also rather depressing.

Dineen contrated mainly on the plight of dairy farmers, and, rightly I think, included rather graphic footage of bull calves being shot because they were the wrong breed to be raised for beef – certain breeds are better for dairy as they produce more milk and can be attached to milking machines easily, but don’t fatten well, so the male calves are essentially useless. The quiet outrage the farmers felt at having to shoot perfectly healthy animals, just because they were unprofitable, was palpable. Yes, it was difficult to watch, but important to show – to shy away from the rather unpleasant realities of farming would have defeated the purpose of the film.

It also underlined the illogical and confused attitude many people, including those in power, have towards farming and animal welfare. Exporting calves live for slaughter is cruel, so is rearing veal: the alternative, shooting them and feeding them to hunting hounds, goes unnoticed. Hunting to get rid of pests is wrong: pheasant-shooting, where birds are bred solely to be killed is not; shooting foxes, which requires far more damaging and dangerous weapons, where they don’t die instantly, is acceptable. (This confirms my suspicion that hunting was banned more because of its image than for what it is. It is ostensibly cruel and ostensibly elitist, although in my opinion it is one of the most egalitarian pursuits I know of, and far kinder than any of the alternatives: hunting foxes, unlike shooting or trapping, gives them a decent chance to get away. Of course some healthy foxes are killed, but it also gets rid of many of the sicker, weaker animals, maintaining a healthy fox population. Contradictory? Not at all.)

The documentary’s conclusion is that as a nation, we are so alienated from our food production. People increasingly think of the countryside as a sort of urban playground, determined one on level to protect it, but in the process destroying its essence, its peculiar ecosystem. The comment made by one of the farmers towards the end, that, ‘We’re all in it together: us, the cows, the foxes, the rats, everything’ (I paraphrase) brought it home. Few people realise how interconnected rural life is, the solidarity that exists between people, including people of different classes, the animals and the land. Yes, farming basically consists of harnessing nature for our own ends, but (until recently) has been done sensitively, working with nature rather than against it. Now, quantity not quality is the maxim: farmers are forced into intensive practices to maximise production, regardless of the long-term consequences. They are increasingly hampered by insane restrictions which push up their production costs, and faced at the end with a food market that operates on price alone.

According to Dineen, in the 1970s people spent an average of 1/3 of their income on food, whereas now it’s a paltry 10% or so. Fifty years ago, everyone made their own bread, their own jam, cooked everything from scratch. Now, we demand cheap food and want to put in as little effort as possible, and since we’ve driven the price of domestic produce up so much, we import everything, mass-produced and often with vastly inferior standards of welfare. It seems criminal that we can penalise our own farmers in this way.

Another thing, that wasn’t made explicit in the documentary, but which nevertheless seemed poignant, was the age of all the farmers featured. There are many fantastic people like them who are prepared to hang on until farming becomes completely financially unviable, but how many young people are there willing to take their place? Very few, I suspect, and understandably. In my more melodramatic moments, I sometimes feel that we’ve only got maybe a decade to go until all the farmers have either been driven out of business or retired. And then it’ll be too late.

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Entry filed under: farming, food, milk, review, supermarkets.

Rubbish and musings… Madness!

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