I am rather risk-averse. So it is out of character for me to place myself between two of our industry’s strongest forces. And when one is joined by the most powerful charity associated with the countryside – the RSPB – the risk is magnified. I could be crushed between them, but here goes.
I refer, of course, to the spat between the NFU and the CLA/RSPB alliance over EU negotiations on the next reform of the CAP. Please note that most of the decisions on what will happen after 2013, when the present policy expires, are likely to be taken within the next few months.
The CLA has joined the RSPB to advocate a policy based on a contract between agriculture and the rest of society. In other words, continued payments to farmers for the delivery of environmental “goods” perceived to be appreciated by the public, together with rural development.
Crucially, however, they accept that food security is an important objective and further, that sustainable production involves the active intervention of farmers and landowners.
The NFU responded that such a policy was years out of date; that now food security is at the top of the world agenda, production is primary, not secondary; that the CLA/RSPB position placed the highest priority on the environment and sidelined production.
The NFU went on to say that food production was top of its agenda and that to advocate otherwise was to do a disservice to its efforts to encourage farmers to produce more and impact the environment less.
However, reading between the lines of the various statements, all parties agreed that, whatever the basis chosen for support after 2013, it was necessary that aid be maintained to ensure the production of food, care for the environment and farmers’ incomes.
If you ignore the rhetoric, it seems to me that the positions taken are very similar. The CLA has clearly concluded that, by allying itself with the RSPB and emphasising the public good, it will have a more sympathetic hearing in Brussels.
The NFU, having invested a lot of effort promoting production and the risk of food shortages, is clearly more concerned with appealing to its membership. And it does, of course, have an AGM and officer elections in a few weeks’ time.
But all, including the RSPB, agree on the key points: That food security is vital; that sustainable farming with limited inputs to achieve optimum yields is the way forward; and that, to achieve those objectives, farmers’ incomes must continue to be supported.
Few commentators, may I suggest, have been more consistent in advocating all of those policies than me. And I began doing so long before 2013 was thought of as an important date on a calendar.
Indeed, the statements on all of this reminded me of the time, more than 18 years ago, when a group of us were writing the aims and objectives for an organisation that came to be called LEAF.
At that time, in 1991, we advocated the integration of the production of safe food at affordable prices with care for the countryside and the enhancement of the environment. In other words, that farmers could and should produce at optimum levels as sustainably as possible.
Isn’t that what the NFU, the CLA and the RSPB have now said in slightly different words? What a pity they didn’t follow LEAF’s example all those years ago instead of letting Brussels think this country’s farmers are disunited and weakening the UK’s negotiating position.