31 October 1997

FSBclaims that

farm assurance

will distort trade

By Tony McDougal

CLAIMS that the assured combinable crops scheme for England and Wales will distort trade are to be examined by the EU commissions competition chief Karel van Miert.

He will investigate a complaint by the Federation of Small Businesses that the scheme – being set up by the NFU and merchants organisation UKASTA – will place farmers and traders at a disadvantage in Europe.

Bob Robertson, chairman of the FSBs agricultural branch, welcomed the move arguing the scheme would create extra paperwork and take away farmers independence. It would also fail to provide any additional premiums and would allow supermarkets to take even more control, he believed.

There has been growing farmer opposition to the NFUs drive towards farm assurance for all sectors. Branches in north-east England want to the union to axe the combinable crops initiative. And Cornwall NFU executive last week sent a clear message that members wanted a single assurance scheme to cover all sectors.

Former Cornwall NFU chairman, Philip Stephens, said: "Im fed up with the NFU steam-rollering assurance schemes on to us without consultation. HQ seems to be aiding and abetting the supermarkets efforts to stitch us up."

But the NFU rejected the allegations. President Sir David Naish stressed the crops scheme was voluntary and would not affect European trade. He said the growth of farm assurance was driven by consumers.

Peter Limb, chairman of the unions cereals committee, admitted there were isolated pockets of farmers "afraid of the unknown", who were worried that the combinable crops scheme would produce more paperwork. But he said nearly 3000 producers were interested in joining, and hoped future roadshows would allay fears of others.

And he argued that the NFU was mindful of linking farm assurance schemes in the future. "Why do you think we have the same verifiers for the horticulture and cereal schemes?" he asked.

But Mr Robertson was sceptical that the scheme was voluntary. "It is trade distortive. The Scottish Quality Cereals version was supposed to be voluntary. However, once more than 50% of producers signed up, it became compulsory as the millers wouldnt take any grain that was not assurance accredited," he said.

And he added that any benefits to producers were illusory. "There will be no hold on retailers. They will not be obliged to buy British – they can just as easily buy French products instead."