Opinion: U-turn on butter has lessons for farm support

Farmers are blessed with more common sense than most of the rest of the population.

But how many of us changed eating habits when experts warned that eating butter could kill? Since then, dieticians, family doctors, cardiac specialists and many others have preached the same message – lay off butter, it can be lethal.

Industries have been initiated and grown huge on the back of that advice. Low-fat spreads are ubiquitous on supermarket shelves. Low-fat cheeses share that space because they, too, are made with milk and must be dangerous. It’s a wonder any of the real stuff got sold at all.

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But now, years later, another bunch of experts have declared the evidence on butter was flawed; that it was never properly evaluated and that consuming low-fat spreads might have done us more harm than if we’d eaten butter. We have compensated by increasing our intake of carbohydrates, apparently, which has caused more serious problems.

So, what do we do with fridges full of margarine? Do we chuck it in the bin? And what happens to the companies that have made fortunes from pandering to the officially sponsored fear of butter? Can they sue the government or the Department of Health for misrepresentation of the facts?

Only time will tell, but meanwhile, butter is back and thank goodness for that.

It occurs to me that longstanding received wisdom of other kinds might also have been based on flawed evidence, but because of repetition by so-called experts, few have questioned them.

What I am about to suggest will be unpopular with many, but only dead fish float with the flow, so here goes.

Suppose new open-minded experts re-examined the Holy Grail established by economists who have said for generations that free markets are the best way to manage agriculture. They would, of course, need to factor in the changed circumstances of today with the prospect of 9 billion mouths to feed around the world within a relatively short time and nearly 70 million in this country already.

Would they conclude that relying on market forces is too high risk, given that such a policy inevitably leads to alternating production and price swings that affect consumer prices and product availability as well as creating volatile conditions for farmers?

Might they consider that the extra demands which will shortly be imposed on the farmers of the world to produce much more than they do now will require stability in order to avert famines?

During two world wars in the past century, governments provided stable conditions for food producers to keep people fed. Is it just me or do others also believe we are almost as close to war as we have ever been since 1945?

And if I am right, the so-called policies being followed by all political parties towards agriculture are inappropriate.

A questioner at the recent Norfolk Farm Conference summed up the situation succinctly. Addressing environment secretary Liz Truss, who had extolled the importance of our industry, he asked: “If farming is so important, why can’t I make any money?”

Counter-cyclical aid to increase commodity prices when there is a shortage and decrease them when there is a surplus would do much to create stability and, over time, would be virtually self-funding. Isn’t it time something like that was considered?

The BMJ’s Open Heart Journal was brave enough to admit years of advice on butter had been wrong. Are those in charge of farm policies brave enough to do the same?

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob.

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