It’s been a lonely business these past four years. There aren’t many UK farmers who think that the only way to preserve our production is to subsidise it. But, by my standards, I’m having a good month.
I was already delighted by the news that, as part of the CAP Health Check, many EU countries had successfully negotiated the right to top-slice 10% of their farmers’ single farm payments. They can now use some of the money to reintroduce production subsidies to vulnerable farm sectors in their home countries. Germany is planning a €300 milk fund and France and Ireland are working on similar schemes for their sheep producers. Countries also retained the rights to continue with suckler cow and ewe premiums up to and beyond 2013 and to use any “unspent” CAP money to fund additional production incentives.
But, as I drove round in my truck looking at the sheep, things got even better. As usual at that time of the morning, my radio was tuned to Radio 4’s Today programme. John Humphrys was on: “CAP… making some farmers very rich indeed.” Here we go again, I thought, but hold on, what’s that he’s saying now? “Some agricultural experts are warning that we may have to go back to the bad old days of subsidising production if we are to grow enough food.” I slammed on the brakes and killed the engine. This was exciting.
Environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee took over: “The government’s chief scientist, John Beddington, has commissioned a report into the agricultural and economic elements of food security.” I turned the volume up as she quoted the yet-unpublished report. It says that we could “double, even treble, our agricultural production”, but that “this agricultural revolution won’t happen unless there is price stability in food markets” so that “farmers feel confident enough about their profit margins to invest in new technology”. My cheer was so loud that several ewes upped and bolted across the field.
Ms Mukherjee interviewed Soil Association director Patrick Holden, who said: “Given the unprecedented precariousness of our food systems… it may be time to re-evaluate the role of government intervention… There are some things that only government can do.” Golly, another friend.
Lord Haskins was less than enthusiastic (no surprise there from the ex-chairman of Northern Foods) and Peter Kendall was also dismissive. When asked by Humphrys whether he wanted to go back to subsidies, he replied: “Certainly not.” But behind the NFU president’s free-trade rhetoric, a solid pragmatist has emerged this autumn. His union has been very active and effective in lobbying EU agricultural commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, through COPA, to reintroduce import tariffs on grain to raise EU internal market prices. As Guy Gagen, chief arable adviser at the NFU, put it: “Without import tariffs, we could be flooded with the world’s crop.” OK, Peter, if it helps to call “a production subsidy” a “protectionist tariff”, then let’s just have tariffs and get on with it.
As a certain orator from Chicago might put it, for those of us who have long believed in subsidised EU agriculture, our time has come. Through tariffs, can we stabilise grain prices at a level that will offer growers a secure long-term future? Yes, we can.
Through headage payments, can we rescue our national sheep flock and beef herd from the nightmarish losses revealed in the EBLEX booklet so thoughtfully enclosed with my recent Farmers Weekly? Yes, we can.
Through “local and flexible support mechanisms”, can we reverse the decline in UK milk, fruit and veg production? Yes, we can.
Change (you can believe in) is coming to UK farming.