CHARLOTTE GRAHAM: It is 10 May 2029, ten years to the day since the Green Party were elected to power in England and simultaneously came to dominate the EU assembly. I’m Charlie Graham and this week Farming Today is going to trace the momentous changes that have occurred within the farming and food industries over the last decade — and we’re starting our journey here, in the forecourt of Borchester Co-operative Supermarket.
CHARLOTTE GRAHAM: It is 10 May 2029, ten years to the day since the Green Party were elected to power in England and simultaneously came to dominate the EU assembly. I’m Charlie Graham and this week Farming Today is going to trace the momentous changes that have occurred within the farming and food industries over the last decade — and we’re starting our journey here, in the forecourt of Borchester Co-operative Supermarket. It’s a lovely bright morning and the shutters are rattling open on 50 or 60 stalls, revealing every manner of fresh local produce — vegetables and meat of every description, charcuterie, fish, cheese, milk, yoghurt, eggs, bread, pies, cakes, preserves . . . and here’s my favourite — a pyramid of local asparagus, surrounded by slabs of golden Channel Island butter.
With me I have Professor Tam Ling, who was one of the UK representatives on the EU Panel for Food Reform, that steered through so many of the changes we have seen in the last decade. Tam, it’s hard to believe that only ten years ago this covered market was the car park of a Tesco supermarket.
PROFESSOR TAM LING. Indeed, though to call it a supermarket is a calumny since Tesco was not a market at all; it was the exact opposite: a super-monopoly with quasi-total control of food prices from field to fork, shared with about three other major players acting in bogus competition. The fabulous array of stalls you see here, which are run by local traders, retail co-operatives or the producers themselves — if they existed at all ten years ago, they were marginalised in “farmers’ markets” which operated only once a week, or even once a month, and which were usually sited some distance away from where folk did their main dry goods shopping.
C.G. Let’s go into the dry goods hall. To me this still looks pretty much like the good old Tesco’s that our mums dragged us around. The same aisles stacked with goods, the same supermarket trolleys, the same strip lighting. What’s changed?
T.L. First of all, the owner. Tesco was a private company beholden only to its shareholders. When supermarkets were nationalised in 2021, the government took over regional depots and the national food distribution network and ran it through a “not for dividend” public company similar to Network Rail. Huge savings were made by doing away with cross haulage — so-called competing supermarkets hauling identical goods in opposite directions.
The management of individual supermakets was taken over by Local Food Partnerships involving representatives of local authorities, the chamber of commerce, consumer groups and farming unions such as the NFU and Via Campesina, and the inevitable celebrity chef. The thinking at the time was that our schools, our hospitals, our police force, our firemen and most other essential services were all to some degree accountable to the public — why on earth wasn’t our food?
C.G. So how is this change of ownership reflected in what we can see on the shelves?
T.L. You’ll find a lot more local produce on the shelves now than you would have done ten years ago. That’s because local farmers and communities have a say on what’s marketed. For example virtually all the pies and sandwiches, and probably over half the biscuits and soft drinks sold here are made in Borchester. Ten years ago they would have been trucked in from depots up to 100 miles away.
That in turn means there is less packaging, and that a lot of it is re-usable because it doesn’t have to go miles to be re-used. And there’s less competitive advertising, none of the “Buy One Get One Free” offers, or loss leaders designed to pull in customers from rival supermarkets. Now there’s no incentive for that sort of mendacious enticement, and anyway it’s illegal thanks to the 2024 Resale Price Maintenance Act. That’s why most villages now have their own shop back again — the central supermarkets are no longer allowed to undercut them, and in many cases village shops are a franchise of the Local Food Partnership.
C.G. Tam, there’s one other change from ten years ago that you haven’t mentioned yet. Look at this display of breakfast cereals. About a third of all of the boxes carry the Little Black Tractor label. How crucial do you think that has been in the changes in our food production systems?
T.L. It’s been paramount! Its effect upon farming practices has probably been more important even than the nationalisation of the supermarkets. Of course all listeners nowadays know what the Little Black Tractor with the sprayer attached means, but many of us have forgotten how bizarre the previous system was.
Before the EU Directive of 2022 which introduced the Black Tractor scheme, all organic crops had to be certified as such, otherwise they couldn’t legally be called organic. Certification was carried out by a number of dedicated organisations, such as The Soil Association, who worked to standards prescribed by the EU and the international body IFOAM, who had somehow assumed legal ownership of the word “organic”. This need for certification imposed a huge burden upon organic farmers, in respect of the fees for certification, and of the paperwork, which required filling in about a dozen different forms — simply to guarantee that one was farming in the way in which people had been farming for thousands of years. It made it virtually impossible for small or landless farmers dependent on outside inputs and rented land to become “organic”. Millions of acres of small fields, commons, heath and moorland, which had not seen chemicals used upon them for years, could not be classed as organic because nobody could afford to have them certified.
Meanwhile the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and GM crops was defined as “conventional” even though none of these technologies had been around for much more than 100 years. The result was that traditional organic farming became disproportionately expensive, and was defined as a niche product for wealthy middle class cranks.
C.G. Yes, I’m afraid that Farming Today was as guilty as anyone of purveying that approach. But that all changed after the financial crash of 2018, didn’t it?
T.L. Yes, the incoming Green government turned the whole system upside down. Instead of organic farmers having to go to great pains and expense to prove they were organic, now farmers who used chemicals had to apply for and pay for a licence to use them. Henceforth the burden of labelling fell upon the chemical farmers. Any product that had no label was assumed to be organic, while any product that contained food grown with the aid of licensed fertilisers or pesticides had to advertise the fact by displaying the now familiar image of a little black tractor with a sprayer attached behind. It was a decisive act of revolutionary semantics — the simple reversal of the meaning of the word “conventional” had profound repercussions upon the agro-ecology of the entire continent.
C.G. Can you summarise quickly what those repercussions were? I’m conscious that time is beginning to run out on us.
T.L. Initially, removing the burden of certification and labelling from organic producers and laying it upon chemical producers altered the price differential, to the point that many organic products were only marginally more expensive than the chemical ones. This alone persuaded many consumers to switch to organic; but more important probably was the fact that organic now appeared normal, whereas the chemical agriculture produce came with scary labels on it — “contains food grown with chemical pesticides”, ” contains food grown with artificial fertilisers”, “contains genetically modified plants” etcetera. That’s not what most people want to see on their baked bean tins. Of course there were vociferous supporters of industrial agriculture who wore tee-shirts with the Black Tractor logo and slogans like “I’m a chemical hunk” and “Spray, baby, spray” but for the most part these people were just as unappealing a model to the general public as the sandal-wearing yoghurt weavers who frequented health food shops.
The impact on farmers was even more radical. The role played by organisations such as the Soil Association changed overnight. In the days of organic certification, the Soil Association’s main role was to police organic farmers, and ensure they were obeying the rules, whilst at the same time not penalising them to the point that they left the scheme. Now the Soil Association derives its money from operating the licencing scheme for chemicals, and advising farmers who apply for licences how they can avoid the expense of using artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Instead of hassling the converted they are now preaching to the unconverted.
C.G. Professor Ling, thank you, that was fascinating but I’m afraid this is all we have time for . . .
T.L. Charlie, I have the greatest respect for you and all the Farming Today team, but I’m afraid that 14 minutes is not enough time to do justice to the issues you raise. It’s time you extended the programme.
As I was saying, I don’t think anyone foresaw what a radical impact the Little Black Tractor scheme would have on the fabric of our countryside. Agricultural scientists are now devoting more of their research to organic solutions than to chemical agriculture, with the result that grain yields for many organic crops such as wheat and oats are now starting to rival chemical yields. Because there is now an advantage from farming organically, rather than a cost involved , biological sources of nitrogen and phosphates are now used efficiently — and the amount of nutrients allowed to leach into our water systems causing eutrophication and pollution has declined dramatically. There has been a welcome revival of mixed dairy farming as farmers revert to using clover leys to harness atmospheric nitrogen. The number of leys halved in Britain between 1975 and 2012, but since the black tractor scheme was introduced it has bounced back to 1975 levels. And as for pigs . . .
C.G. Thank you Professor Ling, I must stop you there. Tomorrow we interview Sir George Monbiot about the Green Party’s Carbon Levy.
(Just as the ICBINO logo is available to bona fide organic producers, the Little Black Tractor logo is offered free to any chemical farmers who wish to use it via www.icbino.net .)