Sir Max Hastings is my favourite political and historical commentator. After the Prime Minister rejected the “Merkozy” Treaty designed to save the euro last month, he wrote: “We are not at the end of anything, but at the beginning of a long, long struggle to redefine Britain’s relationship with Europe without shattering our trading partnership with it”.
Predictably, coming from his pen, it was a precise summary of where this country now stands. But what it will mean in practical terms once the politicians and civil servants of Whitehall as well as those in the other 26 nations in the EU recover from Christmas excesses is anybody’s guess.
More particularly, it remains unclear what the new relationship will mean to agriculture. Will we still be included in the CAP? Will some, or all, the policies concerning our industry be repatriated to our shores? And if they are, what will happen to the various support payments on which so many of us rely?
Further, what will happen to the numerous regulations imposed on us by the EU that cannot, at present, be modified by Richard Macdonald’s recommendations that those originating in the UK be rationalised and simplified?
In short, as we enter this new year, some might say that in this Brave New World there are more uncertainties about the year, and years, ahead than for some time. And while we might have been concerned at the apparent over-greening of last autumn’s proposals to reform the CAP, we should, perhaps, now be equally worried at the direction DEFRA might wish to take us if it regains power over our affairs.
Moreover, the influence of some civil servants who came to DEFRA from Environment has been creeping into more of Caroline Spelman’s pronouncements recently. For instance, she’s been suggesting that cutting aid to farmers would stimulate greater production and would therefore be consistent with the challenge posed by Sir John Beddington’s “perfect storm” analogy that preceded his Foresight Report, published almost a year ago, on the need to dramatically increase production.
Such ideas ignore the evidence of recent years when the combination of aid and commodity prices were below costs and led to static production and yield plateaux of a number of key crops.
In order to continue producing despite financial losses but in the hope of better returns from the market place that were not realised, farmers cut costs. Fertiliser and ag chem inputs were reduced, investment in machinery was postponed, labour was trimmed to the bone and yields suffered.
OK, those weren’t the only reasons. Reduced investment in research and extension played their part, as did the misguided political decision to prohibit the use of technology already in use and benefiting farmers and consumers in many other countries. If you look at the statistics from those areas of the world where genetic modification in its various forms have been adopted, you find yields have trended upwards during the last 10 to 15 years, just as ours used to do.
All this has taken place in a political environment that pandered to powerful single-issue pressure groups and appeared to discourage production in favour of environmentalism. Only recently have politicians started talking about “sustainable intensification”, which some of us have been preaching for years. But so far it’s all talk and little action.
So, in or out of Europe, there’s reason for concern. Policy uncertainty, currency crisis, price volatility and maybe more climatic aberrations suggest optimism surrounding future demand for commodities should perhaps be restrained until the fog clears.
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.
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