Forcing farmers to compete on the world market is like handing producers a knife and asking them to cut their own throats, the Soil Association conference was told.

Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for south-east England, said: “We need to challenge the most dangerous and damaging myth which is that international competitiveness should be the overarching policy goal of absolutely everything we ever do.”

European Union and World Trade Organisation rules were wrongly exhorting farmers to become more internationally competitive while at the same time expecting them to meet higher environmental and animal welfare standards, she told delegates.

Higher standards were desirable, Ms Lucas said. But such demands were completely incompatible when set in the context of
world prices that were below the cost of production and cheap imported foodstuffs that were substandard.

“Farmers are being asked to do two very different things – to meet higher standards and then to be even meaner and leaner on the global market.

In effect they are being handed a knife to cut their own throats.”

The global food industry was primarily responsible for the decline in local shops and the replacement of thriving high streets with out-of-town supermarkets.

Such policies were contributing to the collapse of local economies and rural communities.

“The ability of retailers to source food from wherever it is cheapest, at the touch of a computer key – even when the very same produce is readily available in local markets – is literally putting hundreds of farmers out of business every week across Europe.”