Farming industry leaders have branded the government’s vision for the future of the common agricultural policy (CAP)* as “one-sided” and “out of date”.
The joint paper, from DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, was tabled last Friday (2 December) in the run-up to key discussions on the EU budget and trade liberalisation.
“The paper contributes to the debate already under way on how to achieve a sustainable future for agriculture and helps answer those who have asked what the UK government means when it calls for further CAP reform,” they said.
Repeating much of the anti-CAP rhetoric expressed by Prime Minister Tony Blair in recent months, the report says the CAP is “increasingly out of step” with the needs of Europe.
It imposes significant costs on developing countries and taxpayers, and continues to have a negative impact on the environment.
But these views are fiercely contested by farming leaders. “The report is one-sided, at times polemic and relies heavily on out-of-date sources,” said NFU president Tim Bennett.
“It is more likely to antagonise than persuade our EU partners, particularly at the current delicate stage of European budget negotiations.”
Government adviser Sir Don Curry added that he was “deeply concerned” by the tone of the report, which calls for an end to all agricultural subsidies and protection within 10-15 years.
“This ignores the fact that the UK has already signed up to legislation that adds significantly to farmers’ costs,” he said.
“To assume we can operate at world prices when lumbered with this cost is unreasonable. If this is Gordon Brown’s vision, then I’m very worried.”
But the report says it is the bill to ordinary citizens which is the real concern, pointing to OECD figures which put the cost of the CAP at about 100bn (68bn) a year – half from taxpayers and half from consumers in the form of higher food prices.
“This is an average charge to an EU family of four of about 950 (650) a year.”
But the NFU says this amounts to a “systematic abuse” of the statistics.
“The OECD figures are intended as a comparison of costs between countries and not as an indication of actual consumer costs,” it says.
Country Land and Business Association chief economist Allan Buckwell added that the report failed to acknowledge the fact that the CAP was already being reformed.
“Margaret Beckett herself welcomed the 2003 CAP reform as the most radical ever, praising particularly the decoupled single payment system,” he said.
“Her department is now demonstrating that it is incapable of implementing the incredibly complex system she chose for England.”
EU farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said she welcomed any contribution to the debate about the CAP, but now was not the time, given the ongoing budget negotiations.
* A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy can be found on the Treasury website www.hm-treasury.gov.uk