In praise of Farming Today

I learn more about the country I live in, and the world at large, from Farming Today on Radio 4 than from any other single medium. The show in the day I wrote this was a typical mixture. The programme led with a visit to a Devon cheese-maker who not only ran a Friesian dairy herd, but also cross-bred his cattle so that the male calves, an inevitable by-product of the dairy industry, got to live for at least 12 months before being offed and turned into burgers; many many calves – roughly 250,000 a year in the UK alone – are simply killed at birth and disposed of. Along the way I learned that we eat about 1 million tones of beef a year, and presenter Charlotte Smith’s intelligent questioning of the farmer revealed that there are at least three grades of beef: top grade, which is what we see in the butchers; middle grade, which is a bit cheaper; and third grade, which goes into burgers and the like. Each grade comes from different cross-bred animals that are fed differently, or that have different husbandry.

The next item concerned the risk of pandemics as a result of rising standards of living around the world. If I understood the argument correctly, more money means more people keeping more animals, because one of the signs of rising out of poverty is the demand for meat. More animals harbour more beastly bugs. And because people in developing countries tend to live in close proximity to their animals, the opportunities for these beastly bugs to leap species is all the greater. Hence the possibility of more pandemics.

Then there was an item about the UK budget for flood defences being cut by 8%, notable for the usual defensive waffle by Richard Benyon, the minister of flooding (this looks like being a self-fulfilling title). The cause of official bodies was not helped by the next item, on the dereliction of duty by the Rural Payments Agency, which is missing its targets again this year. It was only a few years back that the government of the time was fined some colossal sum by the EU for the RPA’s general uselessness. My mother use to sit on a Civil Service Commission vetting recruits to the various branches of government. She said that the brightest ones went to the Treasury, the next brightest ones to the Home Office and so on down the list of ministries. The real dullards went to what was then MAFF, what is now DEFRA. Things don’t seem to have changed with the passing of years. And the dullest of the dullards obviously end up in the RPA.

All fascinating stuff, with implications for anyone interested in food, and for many who aren’t, and all fitted neatly into 12 minutes. I almost forgot: there was the five-day weather forecast was well. Farming Today’s only drawback? It’s broadcast at 5.45am every day. But with the miracle of podcasts, you can listen to it any time. Which I just have.

Farming Today, 5.45am daily, BBC Radio 4

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