This week sees the annual Oxford Farming Conference, where many of the UK industry’s leaders gather to explore ideas. In a “bid to challenge thinking,” organisers have invited George Monbiot and myself to speak. I recently caught up with George to discuss his compelling and deeply thought-provoking book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. In this second part of my interview with the Guardian columnist and author seen as one of industrial farming’s fiercest critics, we discuss who holds the power in the countryside and whether there is room for the rewilding of nature alongside the demands of food production.
Philip: You describe how farmer’s unions are often dominated by large land owners with strongly conservative views. (p. 118) What impact have they had on food and farming policies in Britain?
George: Defra, the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, really stands for Doing Everything Farmers’ Representatives Ask. The address of the National Farmers Union is 16 Smith Square, London SW1. Defra’s address is 17 Smith Square, London SW1. They work as one body, one mind. Rural policy is interpreted as keeping farmers happy. Yet farmers in England comprise just 0.3% of the total population and just 1.4% of the rural population. That fact needs repeating, because it always gets lost. Farmers are just 1.4% of the population of the countryside. So the government’s rural policies marginalise 98.6% of rural people.
The farming industry in Britain receives £3.6bn of public money every year. And what do we get in return? Those who need the money produce hardly any food. Those who don’t need it carry on producing what they’d be producing anyway, and simply put it in the bank. For the money we’ve given them, we could have bought all the land in Britain several times over. Yet not only have we acquired no public ownership over what we’ve paid for, there is not even any public involvement in decision-making over how the land is used. This is taxation without representation. Democracy is a dead letter in the countryside.
Thanks to their lobbyists, and the bonfire of regulations the government has granted them, industrial farmers are subject to ever weaker restraints on how they treat their animals, on the destruction of wildlife and habitats, and on eroding and compacting the soil and causing floods downstream.
Philip: What scope do you think there is for the land use demands of rewilding and food production to sit alongside each other?
George: There are two main categories of land that I would like to see rewilded: the unproductive uplands and buffer zones around the rivers. In the first case, there would be almost no impact on food production, as the land is so poor.
Look at the rest of Europe: there the lowlands are largely bare, which is what you’d expect, because that’s where the good land is, and the uplands are largely forested, which you would also expect, because they’re not worth farming. That’s why average forest cover across Europe is 37%. Here the lowlands are largely bare and the uplands are even barer. The result is that we have only 12% forest cover. It’s a crazy and entirely illogical use of the land, and might even cause a net overall loss of food because of the damage to more productive farming downstream caused by the cycle of flood and drought that results from the stripping of trees and other deep vegetation from the watersheds.
The buffer zones I’d like to see around the rivers – perhaps 50 metres on either side – would take some fertile land out of production. But they would also protect us from floods, filter pollutants out of the water, and provide magnificent and continuous wildlife corridors in the places where it counts most (riverside habitats tend to be richer than any others). If we want to improve our food security, there is one obvious solution: eat less meat.
Philip: To what extent do you know the work of Compassion? Have you read my book, Farmageddon? How do you see Compassion being able to make a greater impact on countryside protection and food production?
George: Not as well as I ought to. I feel ashamed that I have not read your book yet, which I am told by many people is excellent (I’ve seen that the reviews say the same thing). The usual crap excuses apply, but I intend to do so. I have long been dimly aware of Compassion as a powerful and effective voice on matters I care about. So why haven’t I paid more attention to what you have been doing? Perhaps part of the answer is that there’s only so much horror I can cope with.
I spend so much of my time discussing the horrible things being done to people and the natural world, and campaigning, often with a sense of futility, against them, that I find it hard also to think about the treatment of farm animals. The way they are kept and treated appals me. When I was 18 I took a holiday job on an intensive pig farm, and the things I witnessed there will never be erased from my mind. I’m aware that Compassion and your book bridge the issues: connecting the farming of livestock with the great web of damage to the natural world this does, and that it’s time I created the mental space to start engaging with it.
Philip: What is your next writing project, are you able to give us a sneak insight?
George: As well as trying to get our new group, Rewilding Britain, off the ground, I’m working on two writing projects at the moment, but neither of them are sufficiently developed to discuss. Sorry!