Taxpayers fund farmers to wreck their landscape and flood their homes

18 February 2014

Go to Google Maps and type in Lechlade – the Cotswold town at the start of the navigable Thames. Instead of looking at it on the map, click the ‘satellite’ button in the top right-hand corner of the screen for an aerial photograph, and follow the river west towards its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire or east towards Oxford. You may notice something that is so commonplace in British river systems most people ignore it: the woods, marshes and wetlands are all but gone. Farmers have ploughed fields up to the banks. Because there is nothing – or next to nothing – to soak up the rain, water and silt flows straight off the bare fields into the river and heads downstream.

In a marvellous series of articles for the Guardian, George Monbiot has explained how public money has turned the southern England into a funnel. This morning’s shows his ability to range from hydrology, to economics, to the idiocies of Brussels. It also shows a love of the British countryside, which to my mind makes his writing so appealing. Six weeks before the floods arrived, he writes:

…a scientific journal called Soil Use and Management published a paper warning that disaster was brewing. Surface water run-off in south-west England, where the Somerset Levels are situated, was reaching a critical point. Thanks to a wholesale change in the way the land is cultivated, at 38% of the sites the researchers investigated, the water – instead of percolating into the ground – is now pouring off the fields.
Farmers have been ploughing land that was previously untilled and switching from spring to winter sowing, leaving the soil bare during the rainy season. Worst of all is the shift towards growing maize, whose cultivated area in this country has risen from 1,400 hectares to 160,000 since 1970.

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Maize, grown to feed animals and the bio-fuel racket rather than people, is an awful crop. The last Labour government warned that the soil stays bare before and after Maize is harvested, without the stubble or weeds required to bind it. ‘Wherever possible,’ it urged, ‘avoid growing forage maize on high and very high erosion risk areas.’ But in the interests of deregulation and getting the state off the back of businesses and all the other thoughtless slogans that appeal to the British right, and, of course, at the prompting of the NFU, the coalition removed Labour’s restrictions of the planting of maize, and gave a specific exemption for maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures.

You might have entertained the naive belief that in handing out billions to wealthy landowners we would get something in return. Something other than endless whining from the National Farmers’ Union. But so successfully has policy been captured in this country that Defra – which used to stand for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – now means Doing Everything Farmers’ Representatives Ask. We pay £3.6bn a year for the privilege of having our wildlife exterminated, our hills grazed bare, our rivers polluted and our sitting rooms flooded.

In a previous piece, which has become deservedly famous, Monbiot described how farmers could plant belts of trees to soak up water in uplands; and how they could allow flooding upstream. British development workers recommend these very strategies when they dispense British aid in the poor world. But when they try to bring that sound advice home, they run into the Common Agricultural Policy, which gives public money to farmers who clear unwanted vegetation from their land.

Monbiot recognises that reforesting and allowing rivers to follow their natural courses upstream will require taxpayers to compensate farmers. Fair enough. I would go further and say we should compensate farmers for the loss of some valuable agricultural land by allowing genetically modified crops. The rage against them was one of the maddest of millennial manias, up there with MMR causes autism. But if you want to allow GM crops or to change agricultural subsidies you run into the EU. I am surprised that conservative Eurosceptics are not concerned about what Brussels is doing to the countryside. But then there is a section of the British right that has become the tools of agribusiness. They are Conservatives who no longer wish to conserve.

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Show comments
  • ButcombeMan

    it would be a good idea if Moonbat and all his apologists read EUREFERENDUM.COM today. North lays the whole history out, back to early 90s.

    To properly comprehend the plan for ethnic cleansing of humans from the managed wetlands, it is necessary to read all the links he provides.

  • NFU

    It’s interesting to see that George Monbiot views on the causes of the
    current flooding problems appear to be accepted unchallenged even when they’re

    He misquotes the Journal of Soil Use and Management, which actually considers the impact that cropping and soil management can have on surface water flows at a field scale.

    It does not consider the impact of cropping and soil management on ‘floods’ or ‘flooding’ – and it is quite wrong for him to leap to the conclusion that it does.

    It’s also simply not true to claim that farmers need do nothing to
    protect their soil and still be eligible for CAP payments. Every farmer
    receiving payment must complete an annual Soil Protection Review. This requires
    farmers to identify problems – such as erosion and compaction – and set out
    actions on how to address them.

    Despite Mr Monbiot’s opinion, farmers have an inherent interest in
    maintaining their soil in good condition as their livelihood depends on fertile
    and productive soils. Farmers are also working to make continued
    improvements in soil management. For example, in the South West, farmers
    are participating in schemes such as Catchment Sensitive Farming and Soils for
    Profit, which provide advice and training events.

    Trying to tell the story of flooding by pinning the blame on a single sector is
    incorrect. The lessons we should learn from this winter’s floods is all areas,
    both urban and rural, should be acting across entire catchments to find

    • JimHHalpert

      I’m afraid you viewpoint, founded as it is on things like observation and verifiable fact, is invalid as it does not meet approved, mainstream standards. Better to listen to these two townies – one even has a canoe! – who have learnt all there is to know about land management from the London Review of Books.

  • Hegelguy

    This is a new and easy way of doing journalism: You merely warble about someone else’s work.

  • Mike Anderson

    At first I thought all these superlatives were wicked sarcasm; but alas, no, Mr Cohen is his own irony.

  • JabbaTheCat

    Dr Richard North has fisked this Moonbat nonsense at his blog…

    • Pete222

      Do you still, after all those constant apologies that he has to write, do you still take Richard North as a credible authority? You’ll be citing David Rose next.

      • lvjcr08

        Yes, damm the Richard North and his damm facts. If these people would not keep on about facts rather than embracing the myths, life would be so much easier. The Earth would be a nicer, friendlier, gentler, happier, idyllic green place.

      • JabbaTheCat

        Which apologies would that be?

        • In2minds

          No reply from Pete222! As Jabba says, Moonbat nonsense.

  • Ed Seyfried

    How times change: I remember when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (now means Doing Everything Farmers’ Representatives Ask) was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (or Ministry Against Farming and Foxhunting)

  • InsidetheEnvironmentAgency

    Defra is a failing department that simply needs overhauling. Who will be courageous enough to start the process? ::silence::

  • StroudieD

    Trees and wetlands may indeed have a role to play in flood
    management, but the writer picks a poor example. Your article refers to the
    lack of trees, marshes and wetlands on the high Cotswolds from Kemble to
    Oxford. It ignores the fact that these lands have been free of trees since time
    immemorial. And good luck trying to establish wetlands on porous limestone! The Cotswolds are largely AONB and sites of special
    scientific interest, and contain more than half of Britain’s limestone
    grassland, much of it sustaining very rare species of plants and animals. In a British,
    European and global context it’s a valuable and threatened habitat. In fact, conservation
    bodies fight a constant battle to curtain woodland encroachment now that sheep
    grazing is not as intense as it was historically.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Finally some sound analysis, – not this Charlie Brooker-style Christopher Booker-type nonsense.

    • Peter Stroud

      Read comment above, by StroudieD (no relation).

    • Fergus Pickering

      Which being tranlated means you like this lefty econut and you don’t like Christopher Booker.

  • Kitty MLB

    For heavens sake.
    We like on the volcanic island of Surtsey, were pelted by volcanic bombs,
    roasted by incandescent gas and lashed by ferocious gales of 120 mph.
    Be should be able to deal with flooding, we were able to in Medieval times.
    Smaller fields and more trees.
    Also who thought it a good idea to build on flood plains, its not all to do with climate change, ( the modern excuse for all our ills, and a way to rip us off and deceive) we clearly need to be careful where we build- and sorry, but build less,
    The EU butting out would also be an excellent idea.

    • Kitty MLB

      Apologies for errors- We live on- not like on.

  • sarahsmith232

    Love the – tell ’em anything, people are basically retarded, political opportunists that are all flying out the woodwork with these floods.
    How we doing with all these theories so far? So we’ve had the – it’s a written in stone fact that it’s only down to climate change, so solution – vote for us, we promise to spend so much more of your money seeking to satiate our saviour fantasies – one from Labour. We’ve had the – see, there’s only one thing an EU directive can bring and that’s catastrophe, on an actual Biblical scale – one from some on the Right. The above article seems to be going with – at it’s core it reveals the true insidious nature of the Neoliberal state – (wish Cohen could get past his previous Marxist self, he’d be so much more use to the ‘downtrodden’ if he could just come out the right-wing closet). We’ve had the – you want the proof Labour’s a Quango stuffing operator but we’ll put that right – one.
    What else? Has there been one that’s managed to make a connection between claimant counts in Surrey and Somerset? What about the ‘these areas are obviously far too white, if only there’d been more Bangladeshi farmers there, they know a thing or two about deforested, man-made floods’ one? I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before there’s some opportunist in Labour that’ll go for that one.
    Sorry to Nick Cohen, prob’ quite a bit that’s relevant in the article but it’s another e.g, i’m afraid, of playing the floods to your personal political advantage.

  • Tom Tom

    Good article, nice to see ANALYSIS rather than platitudes. With the news that California faces a 200 year drought and produces 33% US fruit and veg. we should anticipate less ability to import food in future and need to use our land for better crops than maize. It is absurd how biofuels are distorting human existence – by silting our rivers and driving up the cost of animal feed.

    The fact that California expanded in the 20th Century – the wettest century – makes that state hostage to its history of drought; just as we have over-populated a country and wasted agricultural land.

    Time to make major changes in the way our environment has been run with the Externalities borne by other people who lose their homes and health

    • cremaster

      We’ve already had about 20 years of “major changes” – they haven’t dredged the rivers or cleared ditches for about that long.

  • Blazenka Hudson-trograncic

    The idea that Europe can have agricultural policies that are ‘common’ was always stupid.
    I think in Britain’s case it is the overpopulation of the limited space that is really at the heart of the problem. If we still had a population of pre-Great War size we might have been able to sort out the problems, it’s now (almost?) impossible.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I told you. Bring back the wolves.

  • In2minds

    Nick Cohen should take care, Owen paterson wants GM too!

  • Mr Creosote

    Plant trees in the floodplains and build tree houses – flooding and housing crisis sorted .

    • Kitty MLB

      Building trees on floodplains instead of houses is an excellent idea.
      Tree houses is also an excellent idea.
      We can also have little boats instead of cars, and be told by the government
      police what we can and cannot do in boats, and that solves the
      expensive problem of HS2- cannot turn a train into a boat!
      Less pollution also ( assuming the boats come with paddles)
      so no need for the expensive green energy fallacy.

      • Mr Creosote

        Just to show it can be done, see avatar photo!

        • Kitty MLB

          Indeed yes, I had a closer look.
          It most certainly also looks like a beautiful and green place,
          as well as being somewhat sunny.

  • rtj1211

    Monbiot’s article is very good except for his typical ‘what would happen with a 4 degree temperature rise?’ nonsense. He has no evidence whatever that a 4 degree temperature rise is either imminent or likely, but he slips this in like a junkie getting a fix. It’s a shame, because the rest of it was first-rate journalism.

    That’s not very clever behaviour by the coalition, is it? Bunging their friends with no strings attached.

    It’s not very good politics either. Lots of irate householders who might have voted for them alienated by those who already do.

  • Mr Grumpy

    A good piece that would have been better without the party political point scoring. We get the countryside the NFU wants, especially when the Tories are in, just like we get the schools the NUT wants, especially when Labour are in. I honestly don’t know which is worse.

  • rtj1211

    Perhaps you’d like to evaluate GM crops against alternatives too?

    I read this story at the BBC extolling a GM potato that is resistant to blight.

    To anyone with cursory and basic knowledge, one already exists: Sarpo Mira. It was bred traditionally in EAstern Europe and is being commercialised from a base in Wales. It is a huge cropper.

    But because it’s not owned by Monsanto, it doesn’t exist.

    GM has to evaluated on a cost basis against traditional breeding. You’ll find it is more expensive.

    But that gets covered up by GM activists who also dominate the media airwaves.

  • Jez

    “We pay £3.6bn a year for the privilege of having our wildlife exterminated, our hills grazed bare, our rivers polluted and our sitting rooms flooded.”

    It’s just a little too reactive that all these armchair flood experts have now just sprung into life. Surely this expertise could have been a little bit more helpful beforehand?

    Saying that Nick, absolutely well gel at your sudden conversion to Conservative principles with your selfless pointers on how the Right need to ditch the Eurosceptics and their agribusinessism. You usually want to change, say the color of a postbox for sake of it.

    Glad you’re helping now!

  • bwims

    First, tell your mates in the Labour and LibDim parties to back the idea of an EU referendum. We don’t want the EU or the CAP.

    Second, don’t try to impose GM on people who don’t want to eat it. I have no problem with GM as long as it is labelled, and it is not a food that propagates in an airborne manner.

    How do you propose to halt cross-pollenation? Why should an organic farmer have his crop contaminated and rendered unsaleable as organic?

    If you are willing to impose GM on consumers and farmers by force, that only proves the assertion than fascism is left wing, not right wing.

  • Mr Creosote

    So let’s leave the EU and we can plant what we like, where we like. Soon we will all be living in some Monbiotian re-forested utopia with bears and wolves running wild….

    • rtj1211

      Actually, you might get the Govt to agree with insurers to pay farmers to plant trees and cover crops at river head waters. Common interests and all that……

    • Fergus Pickering

      I quite like that. The wolves can eat the lower classes.

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