5 July 2002

SUSTAINABILITYNOT ONWITHOUTPROFITABILITY: TAKENOTE,MRSBECKETT

Everybody wants to see a sustainable future for British farming. What that term means, and how to achieve it, drew less agreement at the Royal Show. Sustainability is a word that trips easily off politicians tongues – not least that of DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett.

Of more interest to farmers is profitability. Profit, in the form of surplus cash, allows farmers to invest in their businesses and countryside management. If that is to happen our farmers must not be disadvantaged or held to ransom in the name of free world trade.

So why, unlike their US counterparts, are UK producers left to grapple with market fluctuations without government help? Its not just price uncertainty that plagues producers. Key questions need urgent answers.

First, will the Exchequer provide the £500m requested by Sir Donald Curry to implement his vision for a British farming industry? Without that money, targeted directly at farmers, the Curry proposals will remain just that, untested proposals.

Second, is EU farm commissioner Franz Fischlers mid-term review of the common agricultural policy. His proposals, designed to restrict support received by large-scale farms, would prove ruinous for many UK producers. This is not modulation, or re-directing a proportion of support payments to achieve environmental targets, it is capping support to large farms.

Further uncertainty looms in the shape of currency instability and the conclusions of two foot-and-mouth inquiries, conducted by Dr Iain Anderson and The Royal Society. Their reports, due within two weeks, should be a vital means of re-establishing confidence in our battered industry. But will they?

Exchange rates are beyond our control in the short term. But provided our industry can find a united voice to press for positive change, much could be done to make farming more profitable. And without profitability there will be no sustainability.