British agriculture: a history of decline

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In mid-June the number of foot and mouth cases in Britain reached 1,782, affecting 8,354 premises. Further cases have been found since. The latest estimate is that some four million animals will be slaughtered before the epidemic is eradicated, amounting to 7 to 8% of the national herd.

The foot and mouth crisis is only the latest example of the problems facing agriculture in Britain. Over a year ago the government wrote "�there is a crisis in British farming� Exchange rates and the legacy of BSE, and a fall in international commodity prices in recent years combined to drive down prices and support and drive costs up" ('Strategy for Agriculture' MAFF). Farm incomes are reported to have declined by 69% between 1995 and 2000, from £5.3bn per annum to £1.9bn. Between 1998 and 2000 the number working in agriculture fell by about 10%, from 608,000 to 556,000. The report continues, "But the crisis also reflects underlying structural problems in British farming. These result from a tradition of subsidy and protection under the Common Agricultural Policy�" This is only very partially true, since the CAP is not actually the cause of the problems of farming, whether in Britain or anywhere else in Europe, but rather an attempt to deal with problems that stem, not from the agricultural sector, but from the overall crisis of capitalism. The government's solution is the familiar insistence that the industry "must be competitive, diverse and flexible" and "must respond better to consumer demands". This is nothing but a demand to bow down before the laws of capitalism, whose rule across the world spreads hunger, poverty and disease.

Agriculture and capitalism in Britain

The present condition of agriculture in Britain can only be understood in its historical context. Since Britain occupied a central place in the development of capitalism this understanding will also contribute to understanding the general questions about agriculture, poverty and starvation.

It was the industrial revolution above all that determined the subsequent development of agriculture. 'The Agrarian Question', written by Karl Kautsky in 1898 shows how the impact of the industrial revolution subordinated all production to the market, changed the pattern of land ownership, wiped out the peasantry in its traditional form, and systematised production.

In 1800, agriculture still seemed to dominate the British economy, employing about a third of the workforce and accounting for the same proportion of the national income. It had been able to respond to a doubling of the population, largely through the application of better methods of cultivation (crop rotation, changes in patterns of animal husbandry to allow more to be kept over the winter etc). In 1830 90% of the food consumed was still produced in Britain. This had been achieved by a complete transformation of agriculture.

The driving force for this change was the development of capitalism, which destroyed traditional peasant industry. This led to fundamental changes in land ownership as peasants and small producers were forced off the land and farms increased in size in order to produce the surplus necessary to make a return. The growth of capitalist production created a demand for 'free' labourers: its impact on the previous feudal society created them and, in so doing, ended feudalism.

In Britain, one of the most important expressions of this was the gradual enclosure of the traditional open field system from about 1760 on. By the start of the 19th century the peasantry as a class had virtually ceased to exist in Britain.

The economic strength of industry was soon reinforced with political power. In 1815 the landed interest was able to pass the Corn Laws which protected the high profits they had enjoyed during the Napoleonic Wars by imposing tariffs on imports of wheat. Their repeal in 1846 reflected the dominance of the industrial interests that sought lower food costs in order to reduce the cost of labour.

Agriculture now became subservient and secondary to industry. Initially this led to a boom as the development of industry and urban areas increased demand, while the cost of transport and the difficulty of storage meant there were few imports to threaten the national monopoly. The application of industrial and scientific techniques brought substantial increase in production along with sharp reductions in manpower. In 1840 the number had already dropped to 25% of the working population and continued to decline, although it did not lose its position as the single largest employer until the start of the twentieth century. Its significance in the national economy rapidly declined: in 1851 it still accounted for 20% of national income, by 1891 it was less than 8%.

In the last quarter of the 19th century cheap imports began to come in, particularly from the Americas and this time demands for protection were swept aside. In the first years of the 20th century British agriculture entered a period of decline in which profits were largely maintained at the expense of investment.

Farming in decadence

At the time of the First World War agriculture only accounted for about 6 or 7% of national income, the amount of land cultivated had declined and British agriculture had become relatively less productive than Germany's. Imports had become increasingly important, exceeding home production in terms of monetary value and calorific content. The outbreak of war did not lead to an immediate change, although the government did encourage people to take on allotments. Subsequently the state took steps to guarantee prices to farmers and to ration food.

After the war state intervention was forced to continue in the face of the growing crisis. Domestic production was protected, prices to farmers were guaranteed and various Marketing Boards were established to boost sales. In 1936 £40m was paid in subsidies. However, imports now accounted for about 70% of food consumed and the contribution of agriculture to the national income continued to fall.

The Second World War saw an immediate and much more substantive response by the state resulting in a 50% increase in arable acreage and a consequent decline in meat production. The use of fertilisers increased two to three times and the number of tractors and combine harvesters quadrupled. The state dictated what was to be grown and allocated labour and machinery. Output almost doubled.

The impetus this gave to agriculture carried on after the war leading to a significant increase in productivity. State intervention was maintained, the Agriculture Act of 1947 continuing the protectionist policy and instituting an annual price review. Initial resistance to joining the European Economic Community turned to a recognition of the necessity of doing so after attempts to establish a rival trading bloc were dashed, although Britain was not accepted until 1973. This period saw a substantial industrialisation of farming, with increased use of fertilisers and chemicals accompanying the consolidation of large farms, with hedges being ripped out to turn small fields into big ones. In the 70s and 80s serious problems of overproduction developed in Europe, leading first to the stockpiling and destruction of food and then to paying farmers not to cultivate part of their land. The CAP now dominates the European Union's budget.

The importance of agriculture to the British economy has continued to decline. In the 1990s it averaged 1.4% of GDP. Last year it was just 0.8% and exports amounted to only £630m. Yet it continues to be heavily subsidised: the 'Strategy for Agriculture' details the subsidies the government plans to provide, including a £1.6bn seven-year programme. The main reason why agriculture, which is such a small part of GDP, gets so much state support is strategic: to abandon domestic production would leave Britain at the mercy of its imperialist rivals if a war broke out. It also plays the role of managing the countryside. This is implicitly acknowledged in the current policy of diversification, whether into niche production or non-agricultural activity.

How farming faces the crisis of capitalism

The crisis of British agriculture is only a particular expression of the general crisis of capitalism, in which immense productive capacity struggles to find profitable outlets. This may seem an absurd and obscene contradiction in a world where millions starve each year but in capitalism starvation and the overproduction of food go hand in hand.

"For revolutionaries, the real issue here is capitalism's own productionist logic, as Marx analysed in Capital: 'Accumulation for accumulation's sake, production for production's sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth�'. Here lies the logical and the unlimited cynicism of capitalism: the accumulation of capital and not the satisfaction of human needs is the real goal of capitalist production, and therefore the fate of the working class or of the environment, is of little import". (International Review 104, 'Only the proletarian revolution will save the human species').

In this respect, agriculture is just another capitalist industry. In response to the crisis of overproduction it has to cut costs, sell more cheaply. One capitalist gains the advantage, but once others catch up they are back to square one. Humans, animals, fish, trees, plants, mineral resources, water, air: none of it can count. Everything is secondary to the accumulation of capital. If animal feed is expensive, then give them the remains of their own kind. The use of this strategy for cattle feed, chiefly in Britain, led to the horrors of BSE. If vaccinating sheep and cattle against foot and mouth is not cost effective, run the risk and slaughter millions if things go wrong (which might give a temporary respite to the problem of overproduction anyway). If keeping animals in fields is too labour intensive, herd them into vast factory farming buildings so only a handful of workers need be employed.

Such is the nature of agriculture and food production in capitalism. As the crisis deepens the only perspective is for farming to become more harmful to farmworkers' health, more destructive to the environment, for more food scares and crises, and for greater hunger. The only way out is the destruction of capitalism. North, 24/6/01.