20 June 1997

Input tax is mooted as part of green initiative

By Tony McDougal

FARMERS could face a tax on the use of pesticides and fertilisers in a government initiative to reduce the environmental effects of intensive agriculture.

Environment minister Michael Meacher confirmed this week that the government was looking seriously at a tax, though he declined to comment whether it would be included in Chancellor Gordon Browns July budget.

However, the NFU questioned the value of a pesticides tax, saying the way forward was through positive arable enhancement schemes and a policy of better risk management. Andrew Clark, NFU countryside spokesman, said he was very concerned at such a premature policy. "This has been tried in Europe with nitrates and it took a 400% tax before there was a reduction in use."

At present, Denmark and Sweden have pesticide taxes, while Sweden and Norway have taxes on fertilisers. Austria has dropped the policy after finding that the taxation threshold was too high to be viable due to the size of arable area payments and other subsidies.

Mr Meacher said it was vital farmers were dissuaded from using excessive amounts of pesticides and fertiliser, citing their effects on farmland birds and wildlife.

The new environment minister also said the party was committed to introducing a Wildlife Bill at the earliest possible opportunity, which would tighten loopholes within the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, improving legislation governing sites of special scientific interest.

Speaking at a conference organised by the Biodiversity Challenge Group in London on Monday, Mr Meacher attacked the CAP, describing it as a monstrous protectionist machine which had consolidated over-intensive agriculture.

He called for an expansion of agri-environment and rural support, and said Labour would be putting pressure on the EU to incorporate these themes within the structural funds review next year. The CAP would have to be reformed, particularly in the light of the anticipated enlargement of the EU to 18 or 24 nations.

"The CAP systems would collapse. We are ready for radical and clear proposals within the next year," he said.

Graham Wynne, Biodiversity Challenge Group chairman and RSPB director of conservation, backed the taxation idea, but called for increased agri-environment spending to encourage farmers to take up conservation schemes.

"The proportion of agri-environment spending out of the whole of the UKs CAP budget, currently nearly £100,000 out of £3bn, has not grown over the past three years. This sends out a dangerous signal and we need to leap forward."