It is important. People often say farmers account for a very small percentage of the country. But they look after the whole of the countryside and the countryside is one of Britain’s greatest features. It looks like it does because of farming.
Do you think the government is taking agriculture seriously enough?
No I don’t, and you can just see that from their whole attitude. We’ve had the shambles of the single farm payment where ministers repeatedly promised it would be fixed and it hasn’t been.
We’ve got the endless dithering over TB in cattle, and the massive increase in regulation.
You need a government that is instinctively sympathetic towards farmers and the rural economy and this one has been completely unsympathetic.
If you were Prime Minister what would you be setting out as the priorities for farmers?
I think the most important priority is to understand British consumers want to support British farmers and British produce, but they can’t because we don’t have a proper labelling system, so we’ve got to sort that out.
I think we’ve got to show that we understand that energy crops and biofuels have a huge potential for farming in the future. It’s positive measures that will actually make a difference, and at the same time focusing on the massive regulatory burden that farmers have and making sure we don’t add to it.
How would you avoid adding to it? Would you advocate a lighter touch approach in areas where we’ve got EU legislation that requires us to meet certain obligations?
In some areas, absolutely yes. And in other areas sometimes it will mean taking a tougher line in Europe to stop some of these regulations more quickly.
CAP budget pressures mean a lot of people believe there will be another significant reform in 2008. What would you be arguing for?
I think we have to recognise the last reform wasn’t that profound in many ways because the costs of the CAP are still so great.
The direction we want to go in is twofold: First, trying to negotiate compulsory decoupling so that all EU countries have to decouple agricultural support from production; second, progressively to have compulsory co-financing – countries paying progressively more and more themselves in terms of agricultural support.
In the long term that twin track is the way of genuinely reforming the CAP and genuinely making the system work better.
At the same time, that would mean getting out of the remaining export subsidies and import tariffs.
How do you sell the idea [of compulsory co-financing] to the wider public in the UK who don’t really connect with farming?
If we explain to people that of course agriculture is going to need support but that support should be done more on a national basis than on a European one, then I think people will understand.
I think they feel that we have for many years been contributing too much to the farmers of other countries, and countries should take more responsibility themselves.
So I think the two cores of it, co-financing and decoupling is a sensible and logical approach.
You’re advocating essentially more nationalised policy within Europe on agriculture. Do you therefore think it’s still possible to have a Common Agricultural Policy?
I’m arguing for a rebalancing.
You’ve set out a very green and environmental agenda. Where do you stand on the balance of renewable fuels – biomass, biofuels, wind and wave power even.
Politicians have got to set a framework for reducing carbon emissions. Then politicians have got to clear away some of the barriers to these industries and then we must stand back and rely on the entrepreneurialism and ingeniousness of farmers and energy producers.
At the moment farmers face a very difficult situation because there’s such a bad tax regime for biofuels for instance.
Would you commit to a bigger tax break?
We need to look at the tax regime for biofuels.
We need to look at the way the energy market works, the regulations of the energy market, to see if we can make a more level playing field and enable what would be win, win, win situation: New crops for farmers to grow, new fuels for people to use in cars and power stations, and a greener, cleaner environment.
The Energy Act contains the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, which commits the country to 5% biofuels, but it is openended and potential investors in renewable energy don’t know how long-term the government’s commitment is.
Would you be looking to give some sort of guarantees to committing to certain measures for renewable fuels to help investor confidence?
I think it’s something we’ve got to look at. At the moment we’re on 0.25% when other countries have hit a 2% target, so we’re not doing very well.
We need to give people confidence this is for real. Other countries seem to be going further and faster and we’ll look at everything that makes this market really open up.
You have supported our Local Food is Miles Better campaign. What do you look for when you go shopping for food? Do you believe the carbon credentials of the food we eat are important?
When you ask British consumers, do you want to buy British food, overwhelmingly they say yes. When you ask them, do you want to buy food that’s locally produced and hasn’t travelled right across the world or right across the country, they say if we can, yes, and we need to make that more possible.
One of the issues for British producers is the power of the retailers and obviously there’s an inquiry going on at the moment. Would you potentially look to legislate to rein in the power of the supermarkets?
I’m very pleased the inquiry is happening. It’s very important that the Competition Commission really looks at this issue. We’ve got to make sure farmers are getting a fair deal. It’s right that this is looked at.
If there’s evidence of wrongdoing then obviously we’d have to act.
One of the issues for farmers is their inability at the moment to be allowed to grow GM crops in the UK. Do you think the time has come when we should give farmers the choice to grow GM crops in the UK?
I don’t think we should lift the moratorium until we’ve dealt with the two issues of contamination and liability. Although you say farmers are itching to grow GM crops, I don’t think that right now anyone would argue there’s a big market.
Would you eat food which has got GM content in it?
Not knowingly, I’m in favour of better labelling. That gives people the opportunity to make that choice and on the whole I think I’d rather make sure I’m eating locally produced and un-genetically modified food.
The average age of the farmer is about 57 in the UK. How can a government invigorate a sector like agriculture and make it attractive for young people to go into it.
It’s about getting rid of the barriers that are stopping farming from taking advantage of the growth of ethical consumerism and the fact that people want to buy good quality British food.
We’ve got to clear away the barriers stopping British farmers playing a big role in our environmental future. If we have a more optimistic and hopeful agenda for farming based on those sorts of things, I think that would encourage young people into farming.
If you had to give one tip to British farmers today, what would it be?
Tell people how good you are. People are worried about the food they put into their children’s mouths.
British farmers have the highest welfare standards of pork they’re producing; the beef; the lamb; the way they grow their crops. Boast about what a great job you’re doing.