… is definitely not what John F. Kennedy said during his inaugural address, but a riff on it that popped into my head while reading an article by a friend, the Indian ag journalist and Gandhian activist, Biju Negi.
Quick reminder: in August of 2020, Indian farmers came out in protest against three agricultural bills introduced by prime minister Modi. While the government argued the ag laws were a long overdue reform that gave farmers greater market access, the farmers saw them as a threat to their livelihood: not only would existing subsidies be cut, the new laws also made it much easier for big corporations to dominate the market and set prices.
In a way, what India’s farmers faced in 2020 is not totally dissimilar to the situation English farmers find themselves in after Brexit: when EU subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) ended, the British government decided to continue payments but gradually phase them out over a seven-year period. (The devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so far continue the payments in full). The trade deals with Australia and New Zealand will make life a lot harder for British beef and sheep producers. And labour shortages caused by Brexit wreak havoc across the agricultural sector.
But back to farmers in India. In autumn of 2020, Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of more than 40 farmer unions and grassroot organisations, organised demonstrations and protests across the country. They blocked motorways around Delhi and set up camps. Despite the pandemic, farmers continued their protest for more than a year and only suspended it when prime minister Narendra Modi withdrew the bills in December 2021. Since then, even in India (where roughly half the population depends on farming for their livelihood), farmers and farming once again vanished from the headlines. Biju Negi was one of very few journalists who wrote about a meeting in Delhi in January at which farming organisations evaluated the year of protests. In the online publication CounterCurrents he wrote:
“The Movement did catch the country’s – and even the world’s – imagination. Over 365 plus days, out on the road, exposed to the elements and against an authority that has no qualms on using its power with the most vile and sinister intent, was no mean act of courage and perseverance. And emanating from that, one of the major achievements of the Movement was/is that it lifted somewhat the fog of “fear” that had engulfed the country. The Movement underlined deep faith in democracy and the Constitution and will inspire a thousand springs. Already, the bankers are beginning to protest on a large scale, the MSME (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) sector is voicing its discontent and the youth are gathering on the roads again. The other sectors too will likely find their voice.”
If it hadn’t been for the farmers’ ‘deep faith in democracy’, the protests would have fizzled out much sooner. But, not only do Indian farmers have an unshakable belief that in a democracy their voices eventually will be heard, they also have unshakable self-confidence. Society owes them, not the other way round, concludes Negi:
“But we must also realize that no community or people, other than the farmers, could have sustained such a protest and movement that it was. The farmers have deep roots in the ground and, in a primeval sense, are their own masters and not answerable to anyone, as the other sectors are. In fact, on the contrary, it is all the rest of the people who are – or should be – obliged to them.”
This isn’t just true for Indian farmers, it is true for farmers the world over. There are a lot of things we think we need – from the latest mobile phone version to yet another streaming service – but it’s food we can’t live without. Literally. And that’s what farmers grow and provide.
The government works hard on signing trade deals, but food imports are not the answer, we rely on farmers in this country to grow and produce the bulk of our food. Agricultural land is a limited commodity, and contrary to what the government seems to suggest, we do not have the luxury to just say: let’s farm the areas we can make real money from intensively and re-wild the rest. Farmers are the backbone of rural communities, they are at the centre of local and regional food networks and our cities depend on them.
I genuinely wonder why farmers in the UK “accept the post-Brexit reality”, “work with DEFRA” and generally “make do” instead of asserting the power they hold. Have farmers forgotten the first months of lockdown in 2020 when supermarket shelves were bare, veg box schemes had waiting lists and people queued outside grain mills hoping to buy flour?
The hard Brexit the government was hellbent on foisting upon the country has significantly reduced exports, made necessary imports from the EU – such as seeds, replacement animals, breeding stock – time consuming, expensive and sometimes impossible. And the severe restrictions placed on immigrant and seasonal workers have led to massive food waste: berries, cherries, apples and pears were left to rot on bushes and trees, there are not enough people to harvest vegetables or, right now, to cut daffodils. Up to now an estimated 35,000 pigs have been culled on farm because due to a lack of butchers they could not be processed. The meat therefore cannot enter the food chain.
“We are seeing our industry slowly being destroyed,” said Neil Parish, Conservative MP and head of the Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee recently. When will farmers start making demands – loudly and forcefully, because they can, because we owe them?
Re-joining the EU may not be an option at present, but being part of / getting back into the single market certainly is possible. A move that would not bring back CAP payments but it would get rid of additional paperwork, costly phytosanitary checks and delays. Import and export to and from the EU would work smoothly once more, border checks between Britain and Northern Ireland would disappear, the UK would be truly united again. And there would be no limit to the number of seasonal farmworkers who could come to harvest or to butcher pigs. When will farmers not just produce food for us but demand that we stand up for them in return?
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years, and is the author of “Regenerative Agriculture: Farming with Benefits. Profitable Farms. Healthy Food. Greener Planet.” Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent (c) @M.Kunz
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