I thought I might write about a BBC series which finished today, The Fisherman’s Apprentice with Monty Halls. It’s been a pretty thoughtful look at various issues within the fishing industry. I don’t think it went far enough in critiquing government policy and I feel that Hall’s idea to save sustainable fishing (Community Supported Fisheries) is the kind of consumer-led, niche idea that can’t really hope to revolutionise the whole industry. But, overall, it has been pretty good TV.
I had seen the trailers for the series and had expected a well-photographed, rose-tinted view of agriculture, perhaps with some naive assertions about how people should really think about buying more organic and local food.
However, I was shocked at the content of this programme. It seemed to act as a cheerleader for industrialised agriculture and thus showed uncritical support for many of the things which are wrong with the way food is produced in Britain.
The episode focused on Norfolk and the opening segments seemed to back my original expectations. The opening look at local crab fishing would have been okay, but it seemed to be poor scheduling for it to follow the more in-depth The Fisherman’s Apprentice. We then had Alys Fowler looking at some edible wild plants, which was mildly interesting. Half of the episode seemed to be made up of Coren travelling around on a Wherry, a kind of sail-driven barge boat which hasn’t been used for a century. The point of this, except for the chance for some nice filming shots, wasn’t made explicitly clear.
Moving on to food production, we next had Alex Langlands,who has made series such as Victorian Farm, looking at how Norfolk introduced the concept of the 4 year crop rotation of clover, wheat, turnips and barley. The clover would fix nitrogen into the soil and the turnips would be used to feed animals, which in turn provided dung. So far so good.
The whole thing then morphed into a pro-industrialisation propaganda piece. Langlands asked why there weren’t animals any more and was told about the rise of artificial fertilisers in the 1960s and 70s, and the subsequent “orgy of hedge removal”.
Rather than questioning the long term sustainability of this destruction of local biodiversity (never mind whether oil and fertilisers will be available in sufficient quantities in the long term), Langlands concluded the segment with
(this is) a landscape which is really, I think, at the forefront of farming globally.. producing food on almost a sort of factory level. It’s quite awesome. And in a way, I guess, I regret seeing hedgerows ripped out, you know, and seeing an ancient landscape changed, but at the same time I can’t help but admire the farmers here for their tenacity and for the way in which they’ve turned this landscape into the food producing machine it is today.
We then had James Wong, an “ethnobotanist”, looking at the sugar beet industry in Norfolk. Kind of. His point seemed to be, Woo! Look at all the chemistry needed to get sugar out of beet! Isn’t that great? Upon learning that the grower received a guaranteed price for beet, as there is only one buyer in the UK, Wong expressed his admiration for the situation and concluded with “every other crop is subject to market forces and it changes every year.”
The buyer in control of this corporate monopoly is British Sugar plc, who sell their sugar as Silver Spoon. On the ethical consumer website, Silver Spoon is rated as the most unethical sugar you can buy in the UK.
Sugar beet production involves high pesticide, fungicide and herbicide use. Great amounts of energy is needed to extract the sugar, and historically there have been massive EU subsidies for the industry, denying developing countries the opportunity to export their sugar at a fair price. No hint of any of this from Wong.
Then, at the Colman’s mustard factory, Coren took food industry analysis to new lows.
Upon finding out that their yield of mustard seed was dropping, Colmans took some seed from 1995 and interbred diversity back into their crop. They had been damaging their plants by breeding only those with large seeds. Regarding diversity, and without a hint of irony, Coren said
…the old seeds had it, the modern ones don’t. Finding the old seeds in the cupboard saved the day. It seems to me that in this part of the country farming and industry and technology and large scale production are all very hand in hand. That’s what’s allowed this to happen, isn’t it?
Of course he was talking about the new breeding programme, not the damage done to natural diversity by large-scale production methods.
The episode description was “How Norfolk combines large-scale commercial farming with local, seasonal foods.”
The two examples of local foods were meat products, the aforementioned crab fishing and a local turkey farmer. If they had showed the consequences of the industrialisation of food production in these areas (deep sea trawling and Bernard Matthews’ bird flu outbreaks, perhaps?) it might have distracted viewers from the beautiful photography, and the presenters might have to had said something negative, heaven forbid.
The hidden death of the soil and the biodiversity lost from the removal of hedgerows is easier to explain away in terms of technological progress.
Also easy to avoid is the effect of modern food production on rural society. Labour in agriculture has either been made redundant by the destructive methods of industrial farming, or, where the jobs still exist, conditions have been driven down by the corporate oligopolies of the food processors and supermarkets. This programme was very sparse on interviews with anyone apart from the rich owners of production. There was a brief section with a crab-picker, and a hint of someone other than the owner working on a mint farm, but where were the others?
A programme claiming to focus on how food is grown across the UK should make more of an effort to to show the human side. This is especially important in an area such as East Anglia, where agricultural work has always been a vital part of society (see, for example, The Deferential Worker, Howard Newby’s study of farm workers in 1970’s Suffolk).
In next week’s episode the focus switches to North Wales. How will the presenters fare in an area which is generally not suitable for large farms? The preview showed Coren getting stuck in some mud while having a go at mussel picking. Perhaps this will provide a chance to show the hardships involved for gangs of immigrant shellfish pickers? I won’t hold my breath.