Many of us hope that foot-and-mouth will prove to be the last terrible gasp of intensive farming

Many of us hope that foot-and-mouth will prove to be the last terrible gasp of intensive farming

May 25, 2001 The Times (London) by Peter Melchett

On the face of it, I picked a bad year to leave Greenpeace in order to spend more time farming. The gloom of our wettest winter and coldest and wettest spring has been deepened to darkest black by foot and mouth. In Norfolk we have been as unaffected as any farms in the country, and it has still been miserable. We were terrified of losing our pedigree herd of organic Red Poll cattle (already a rare breed). A sense of isolation, emptiness and an eerie quiet fell over the farm, usually bustling with walkers and other visitors.

Now, for those of us lucky enough to be away from foot-and-mouth hot spots, life, as well as the weather, is returning to normal. Last weekend the first of our paying guests have stayed, along with their horses, half the farm is open to walkers, and the cows are out of the cattleshed onto suddenly lush grass - and 18 calves have been safely born.

But this is not a normal year for us. For the first time for more than 50 years none of the land has been sprayed with chemicals. The final part of the farm is now in conversion to organic -a third is there already. I feel as if I've finally kicked the chemical habit of a lifetime. Conventional farming is an addiction that has caused catastrophic declines in wildlife. In England we've lost half a million dormice in 40 years, one-and-a-half million tree sparrows are gone, and over the past 25 years six million skylarks have disappeared.

Part of my passionate opposition to genetic engineering of food and crops stems from the knowledge that the technology is designed to keep industrial farming alive to destroy the countryside for another 50 years.

On our own farm, the changes as we go organic are dramatic and visible. We've measured big increases in tree sparrows and skylarks. We have hares everywhere, two pairs of breeding barn owls, and our English partridge numbers are back up to levels last seen 30 years ago. In 1935, eight guns shot over 800 English partridges on our farm in a morning. A few years ago, we had eight pairs on the entire farm -this year it's 40. Most significant for me are the moles. Not spies from GM companies sent to spot our mistakes (we are making plenty as we learn a new philosophy, working with nature, not overpowering it). Moles are the top predators, the lions and tigers of the underground world of our precious soil. When I was a child, they were in every field. Then, unnoticed, they disappeared. Years after we stopped using chemicals on the first part of the farm to go organic, the moles are back -a sign to me that the soil is alive again.

Many of us hope that foot-and-mouth will prove to be the last terrible gasp of intensive farming. For some time experts have been privately forecasting catastrophic breakdowns in animal and crop health. Slaughter was a selfish and catastrophic mistake, protecting a small minority of livestock exporters at the expense of thousands of farmers, rural businesses and the public. The policy was most vociferously defended by "Biotech Ben", the pro-GM leader of the National Farmers Union. Ben Gill told this paper that he has been subjected to a dirty tricks campaign because of his opposition to vaccination. He claimed this was part of an organised campaign by aristocratic farmers.

Given his ability to put his foot in his own mouth, I can't think why anyone, aristocratic or not, who cares about the future of farming would want him replaced by a more effective defender of intensive farming. Ben's latest contribution to rational debate was to announce in Australia that eco-terrorists might have been behind foot and mouth. This claim is so preposterous that even the Ministry of Agriculture had to deny it. But it hasn't escaped my notice that Biotech Ben may feel I qualify as both an aristocratic farmer and an eco-terrorist. Joy!

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