There are a few authors whose books invariably leave me wanting more, writers whose characters have become so real that I feel I know them and they should have an ongoing presence in my life: Zadie Smith and David Mitchell come to mind. But it is rare that I cry when finishing a book – this morning for the first time in years I did so.
Last week James Rebanks’ English Pastoral rose to the top of my pile of waiting-to-be-read books. I finished it early this morning and I shed inexplicable but unstoppable tears. The book is hugely important, dealing not only with the dilemmas facing modern farming but questioning our whole approach to food production A combination of the beauty of the writing and the quiet passion of the author struck deep chords inside me: I was alone and I allowed myself to weep.
Now that the UK has finally left the European Union it is no longer constrained by Brussels. One of the major complaints by those who have brought about Brexit has been that ‘our laws are made in Brussels’; the tiny percentage of our laws which have been in fact made by the European Union are those that, by and large, are designed to improve the quality of life. They cover human rights, the environment, animal welfare and workplace rights, mostly areas where there should of course be internationally agreed standards. Within days of the ending of the transition period during which the UK continued to be bound by European standards, our Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs quietly allowed the reintroduction of a neonicotinoid pesticide, banned by the EU and deadly to bees and other insects, to treat sugar beet. Much as James Rebanks’ approach to farming, balancing the interests of the environment, the farmer and the consumer, makes complete sense I fear that under our present exceptionally right wing government commercial interests will prevail. The EU common agricultural policy has been a major influence in the environmentally damaging evolution of agriculture; sadly I suspect that we will not use our freedom to return to more sustainable methods.
We have now lost the power we had to influence the European Union. One of my criticisms of the EU is that its protectiveness was damaging the Third World: there is a degree of hypocrisy in Brussels which does not sit well with its generally high ideals. Sugarcane, the most efficient, economical and environmentally friendly source of sugar, only thrives in the tropics where there are the high levels of sunlight which it needs. The production of sugar from beet should have been consigned to history decades ago but the interests of comparatively wealthy northern European farmers have been given priority over those of the Third World; I have never expected that the UK would suddenly become more altruistic but nevertheless it is deeply disappointing that our government, rather than persuading farmers to change to other crops, has reintroduced this hugely damaging pesticide.
English Pastoral should be recommended reading for anyone in a position to influence the future of farming, not just in the UK but throughout the developed world. In his book James Rebanks mentions that 80% of the world’s population still gets its food from traditional farming methods: it should, surely, be possible to change enough minds to improve on that.