11 January 2002

Beckett:No quick

fixes…

Speakers at the 56th Oxford Farming Conference on Jan 3-4, were eager to rebuild farming after foot-and-mouth.

Isabel Davies and Tom Allen-Stevens report

DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett has re-affirmed her aim to redirect farm support away from food production towards environmental initiatives.

Mrs Beckett told the Oxford Farming Conference that farm support must be directed towards helping the environment and countryside. Farmers would be encouraged to diversify, build closer ties with customers and explore new and alternative crops, she said.

There are to be no quick fixes for cash-strapped farmers, Mrs Beckett said, adding that she wanted the industry to "thrive, not just to survive". But she withheld views on several issues, saying these were the responsibility of the governments commission on the future of farming.

Mrs Becketts speech last week (Jan 4), was more conciliatory than had been feared, and she called on farmers to work with government. "Our resolution this year must be to work together," she told delegates. "Farmers and the government must identify common goals and work towards their achievement," she added.

Most delegates were encouraged by Mrs Becketts emphasis on ensuring that farming retains a central role in the rural community. But Devon farmer Raymond Burrough was unconvinced by her insistence that the government wanted to work with farmers. "She was playing to the gallery," he said.

After the speech, Mrs Beckett fielded 30 minutes of questions from delegates. Some listeners criticised her department, saying it was uncommitted to farming, issued burdensome regulations and maintained poor import controls. Others accused the government of continually moved the goal-posts.

Hampshire farmer Hugh Oliver-Bellasis asked Mrs Beckett: "How can you convince us to work with you when your commitment to farming is laughable? We have suffered a lack of agrimoney and import controls and increased legislation on diffuse pollution and ploughing of grassland."

Mrs Beckett responded with a question of her own: "Do you think £800m of agrimoney compensation and £2-3bn of subsidy overall is laughable?" she asked. "My department cannot be genuine friends with all rural dwellers if we pretend the problems on diffuse pollution will just go away."