21 June 2002


Its a killing recipe. In the last three years of the past century UK farmers assets plunged by £1bn while debts rose by £700m. In the past seven years farm incomes have plummeted by more than 70%.

The result is as stark as it is terrifying. About 60,000 farmers and workers have quit farming in the past four years, says NFU president, Ben Gill. Dire warnings from NFU presidents are routinely received with cynicism by government and the national media. But nothing can conceal the scale of the catastrophe that is unfolding in our countryside.

Were it to take place in any other industry, newspapers would be awash with criticism and nervous back-bench MPs would lobby for government action. But farming is a special case. An industry that this government can run down at will, safe in the knowledge that the public seems content to rely on cheap food imports rather than top quality British produce.

Meanwhile, how can we resuscitate the patient? Sacking the chief surgeon (at least in England) mid-operation is unlikely to improve the chances of survival. Replacing Mr Gill would not even begin to bring the patient round. Neither does it help the farming industry when various groups and organisations squabble over the best route forward.

British farming needs a united voice. A voice that can speak loudly and clearly for the thousands of farmers who produce top quality, welfare- and environmentally-friendly food and care for the countryside.

Ironically, our best ally could be US farm secretary, Ann Veneman, and the new Farm Bill. Its commitment to support US farm incomes demonstrates clearly the significance the worlds leading economic superpower attributes to a viable farm population, food security and rural populations. That example will not go unnoticed elsewhere in Europe. How much longer must we tolerate UK politicians squandering what remains of our once great farming industry?