Agriculture: Profits versus Plenty

Calling agriculture an industry is like making other statements — such as that man is an animal — which are accepted as technically true but contrary to popular imagery. Agriculture in most people’s minds is the antithesis of industry. Agriculture means bucolic bliss: waving corn and lowing herds, fresh food and cider with Rosie, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife — and so on.

Nevertheless, an industry it is. Michael Allaby in The Environmental Handbook describes it as the biggest factory-floor in Britain:

“Men have been replaced by machines and chemicals. Individual farms and whole wide areas of the countryside have specialized. Every last square yard has been put under the plough. It has been found more profitable to bring concentrated food to animals than to allow them to graze grass, and so poultry, cattle and pigs have moved indoors to semi-industrial units.”

The most striking change in farming since the second world war is the progressive absence of men. In 1949 there were 645,000 male and 85,000 female agricultural workers in the United Kingdom. The figures in 1970 were 195,000 and 22,000. The numbers of part-time and seasonal workers have gone down similarly, from a total of 934,000 in 1949 to 252,000 in 1970. In the hill-farm districts of northern England stone cottages stand abandoned and crumbling; in the south, the cottages have gone to a high-priced market for commuters and the well-to-do. Characteristically, an arable farm of 200 acres or more requires only one man besides the farmer.

The mechanization and technology can show, at first glance, impressively greater production figures than those of the old days. Allaby says:

“In 1946 the average yield of wheat was 19.1 cwts. per acre; in 1968-9 it was 28.2 cwts. The barley yield rose from an average 17.8 cwts. per acre in 1946 to 27.4 cwts. in 1968-9. All other produce has shown a similar increase.”

However, this suggestion of abundance needs at once to be qualified. The land available for agricultural use is decreasing all the time. According to Best and Coppock in The Changing Use of Land in Britain, the area producing food in England and Wales has fallen since the beginning of the century by 2,500,000 acres. The reduction has been caused by building development, motorways, etc. The same authors expect a greater loss in the second part of the century, making a total reduction of 15-20 per cent, of the whole.

Increased production per acre has then to be balanced against a shrinking acreage — which, in turn, tends more and more to be concentrated in favoured crops. The growing of wheat has remained fairly stable since the war at about 2,000,000 acres, and was not much less before it. Oats have declined dramatically from 2,272,000 acres in 1920 to 575,000 in 1970, and potatoes by half since 1945: other root crops too. The increase has been in barley-farming. Running at about a million before the war, the annual crop now approaches 5 million acres.

It is worth remarking on the chief reason why barley has become the most profitable, and therefore the most widely grown, crop. It is unsuitable for bread, and as livestock food is useful mainly as a fattener. Its great use is for making beer and whiskey, and the highest prices are the brewers’ and distillers’ for a heavy crop of it. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, more than a quarter of the barley produced in Western Europe and America is for this purpose. The central importance of modern agriculture, taken for granted and proclaimed, is the production of necessary food. With the largest acreage in Britain thus given to barley-growing, one sees plain illustration of the fact that it is not so: as with every industry under capitalism, the object is not social good but profit. A not-too-harsh comparison can be made with eastern countries where, amid starving populations, thousands of acres are devoted to the cannabis plant.

Nevertheless agriculture does provide food, of course. If “for the nation” is added, as it usually is, the clue is given to the special status of agriculture. Throughout the history of capitalism there has been a conflict between the industrial capitalist and the agriculturist over, as a writer in this journal put it in 1936, “how cheaply the latter can be compelled to feed the former’s human cattle”. Following the first world war farming fell into an extreme plight, after the Government dropped its wartime price-guarantee system. Eventually in the nineteen-thirties, with another European war in prospect, first steps were taken in a system of subsidies for agricultural production. This system was extended during and after the war to the point where, according to the authors of the Penguin Farming in Britain TodayFarming in Britain Today says:

“Therefore, even if one concedes, and undoubtedly one should, that after making adjustments to allow for the greater effect on the profit from bought feeding-stuff’s, small holdings still show a greater output per acre than large, it remains a factor that could have over-riding importance only in a situation where food was scarcer than manpower or other resources.”

It seems a grudging, tortuous conclusion — but the real point is put a few sentences later:

“At the moment the aim is not high production as such but production at low cost.”

The tendency, supported by Government policy, is for farms to amalgamate and make larger units. Since 1967 grants have been given for amalgamation schemes, and fresh legislation in 1970 made the terms more attractive still.

What of the farm worker? He is notoriously the poorest-paid of all workers, regardless of the state of agriculture. Today the weekly wage is £16.20, and in April this year a request for a rise was rejected flat by the Agricultural Wages Board. The tied cottage is still widespread: after a lifetime on near-starvation wages families are summarily evicted when the man has to retire through age or ill-health, or if he has died. In this respect, as over wages, the NUAAW (the farm workers’ union) put strong hopes in successive Labour governments, but the promises made were never implemented. It is commonly believed, of course, that in the country there are countless “perks” — an inexhaustible supply of free vegetables and rabbit pie — which more than make up wages to town levels. There was little truth in this in the past, and today rural living is in most ways dearer than in town. The farm worker’s life is one of abject poverty; he is still treated in many cases like a feudal serf, and is too scattered to be able to organize effectively for better pay and conditions.

In the last few years the ecologists have drawn attention repeatedly to modern farming techniques. At a simple level, the removal of hedges and the massive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers have decimated wild life: the commonplace creatures of not long ago — tadpoles, tiddlers, bumble-bees, insects and plants galore — have suddenly become rarities in the countryside. Beyond this, there are immediate physical dangers. Countless drums of poison whose disposal is a chronic problem, whose use is seen to be a source of pollution of lakes and water-courses, and whose contact with food is disturbing to many scientists.

Although this kind of technology has raised crop yields, there is mounting evidence that it is self-destructive. Allaby in The Environmental Handbook writes:

“Farmers have been aware of the deterioration of the soil for some time. Yields have begun to decline, suggesting that the increase of yields may have reached a peak. The crops appear to be less healthy: pest outbreaks, weeds and disease are increasing. The National Farmers’ Union set up an enquiry in 1969 to examine the problem . . . Such information is published and discussed in technical terms that may not impress the town dweller. The experts may forget to tell him that what they are debating is, in fact, the fertility of the land, its ability to produce food.”

In the debates on these matters, from the point of view of capitalism it does not matter who is right. Whatever “the balance of nature” may mean, what may be the future of the soil and the environment — these are long-term questions: but farming policies are short-term ones, preoccupied with this year’s profit. The farmers’ reply to criticism is always that they are directed by Government policy. What is meant is that they must farm to get the subsidies and grants and seek the highest market price.

The protests against factory-farming of poultry, pigs and cattle appear to have died down now, presumably because it is established as the condition on which we may continue to have chicken and other things for dinner. Apart from the economics of land use, pig and poultry farming in the open are characteristically small-scale enterprises: the product is immensely better, but the relative price of food-stuffs makes “free range” less and less able to compete. The authors of Farming in Britain Today admit the inferiority of factory-farmed products, but say they are “here to stay” and “the housewife of today must reconcile herself”. What does “efficiency” mean, then?

Contemporary agriculture is an industry, with the motives and tendencies and hopeless contradictions of all industries in capitalism. It fails to produce the wealth of which its resources are capable, relegating production to cost and profit. Its economics are those of the shortest term and the biggest penny, and inevitably inferior goods. It is sustained by a labour force kept in poverty and subject to primitive conditions and humiliations. The policies it is forced to pursue are pregnant with damage to human beings and their environment, but only profit is heeded. Yet, in the same view, the answers are obvious. Given the reorganization of society to production for use, agriculture could and would produce abundance.


Except where otherwise stated, figures in this article are taken from statistics published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

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