Shadow farming minister Jim Paice will outline his plans for farming at next week’s Tory conference in Manchester. Johann Tasker gets a preview
How important is British farming to the future of the economy?
British farming produces the raw material for the largest manufacturing sector in the country – the food and drink industry.
Without British production most of the processing industry would go abroad.
As consumers become more concerned about how and where their food is produced and as the world’s food supplies get tighter it is irresponsible to allow production to decline.
To what extent should farmers be involved in devising food and farming policy?
My door will always be open to farming representatives, including the Young Farmers, where I first got involved in agri-politics and met my wife.
If we are to enable the industry to optimise its potential, not just to produce food but to do so in harmony with the environment, then we all have to work together.
It must be done with farmers, not despite them.
On a wider basis we will create non-statutory rural advisory panels to ensure ministers have a direct route to farmers.
What incentives will you offer farmers to tackle climate change more aggressively?
We will make sure electricity feed-in tariffs really encourage investment in on-farm renewable energy systems such as anaerobic digestion, which will also help farmers meet Nitrate Vulnerable Zone rules by making a profit from muck.
We will also stimulate the use of wood for heat or power to produce an income from lowland woods.
On the other side of the coin we need to concentrate some of our research into ways of reducing emissions from the industry, both from livestock and from arable production
Will changes be made to DEFRA to make it more efficient and effective, in particular with reference to reducing red-tape faced by farmers?
DEFRA has become obsessed with process, telling farmers how to comply with regulations rather than whether the objective is met.
We will review with the industry all regulations, abolishing any we can, end the practice of gold-plating and refocus the rest on outcomes not process.
We will trust farmers to do the right thing and we will concentrate inspections on those who are not already in assurance schemes.
We will also keep a close eye on proposals being developed in the EU to ensure unnecessary extra regulations are killed off before they are formally put forward.
How do you propose to keep retailer power in check? A supermarket ombudsman?
We support the Competition Commission’s new code of practice which must be enforced by an existing independent body or by a new one if necessary.
Governments cannot set prices but should try to ensure the market works as fairly as possible.
How will you combat bovine TB – will you sanction a badger cull?
TB cannot be brought under control without a comprehensive package of measures including addressing the reservoir in wildlife.
We will permit targeted and coordinated control of badgers in hotspot areas.
Vaccination will have a part to play when it is available but it cannot work in areas where the majority of badgers are already infected.
Food security: What percentage of the food that we can grow ourselves should we grow ourselves?
Conservatives have been calling for greater food security for at least three years.
Until recently Labour ministers were saying domestic production was unnecessary.
For us food security means the capacity to produce the majority of our needs so we want to reverse the decline in UK production of temperate foods that has occurred under Labour.
But this is not about setting targets. Farmers themselves will achieve this if government creates the right business environment for them to compete and the right incentives for them to conserve and manage our wildlife.
Will you press ahead with the establishment of a new independent body for animal health?
In principle we support cost sharing as long as it includes real joint policy making. But we are not committed to the current proposals. It must not be an excuse for making farmers pay for DEFRA’s mistakes.
Government must accept responsibility for biosecurity at our borders and in its laboratories.
How will you encourage more youngsters into farming?
The most important attraction will be enabling farming to be a profitable and a respected career.
It will always be a tough life but young people entering the industry need to feel valued. Under a Conservative government they will be.
Should Single Payments be subject to a minimum size or ceiling?
The government should never have opened it up to small bits of land like pony paddocks, but having done so there should be a sensible minimum which makes the administration worthwhile.
Any ceiling could discourage enterprise and make a lot of money for lawyers finding ways around it.
What is your policy for farming post-2013 – in other words, after the Single Payment Scheme?
There is little doubt there will be a form of direct payment after 2013 but budget constraints and a shift to the new members of the EU will reduce it from current levels.
We want more money put into rural development, especially to support investment in improving competitiveness.
It is essential that the rules apply across the EU, so we want increased compulsory modulation rather than voluntary modulation applied only in England and Portugal. We must have full decoupling for all products in all countries.
How should farmers be encouraged to promote wildlife?
The key to achieving real benefits for wildlife lies in encouraging farmers to work together on larger-scale schemes and by making some of the payment based on measurable but achievable outcomes such as the population of a target species.
The payments have to be re-examined to ensure they do reflect not only income foregone but also any additional expenditure.
We can only achieve lasting improvements if we recognise that conservation must be done by working with farmers not by working against them.
Nowhere is this more important than in the hills where stock are essential to maintain vegetation, so we will substantially increase the funding for upland schemes from within the RDP.
Should UK farmers be allowed to grow GM crops?
Any GM development must be properly assessed for both food and environmental safety. Once cleared then they could be grown commercially as long as there are clear rules on crop separation and on the issue of liability if non-GM crops become cross-pollinated or mixed after harvest.
Whether a farmer then grows a crop will depend on whether a consumer is likely to buy it.
If you win power will you increase funding for research in food production and agriculture?
Good research is essential to step up food production without damaging the environment.
Extra funding can only come from cutting other spending within the context of serious restraint.
If we can find extra funds we will increase research but we will also want to ensure all existing research, whoever funds it is coordinated for maximum benefit.
Pesticides – do bystanders need additional protection? What’s your policy on this?
It is common courtesy to tell neighbouring residents if you are going to be spraying or, for that matter, muckspreading.
Legislation should only be used as a last resort if farmers do not follow the code and do not observe that courtesy.
I am though very concerned the recent EU changes to pesticides regulation may drive farmers out of some crops which we will then import from countries which still use chemicals which we have banned. I would try very hard to get the whole thing looked at again.
Will your government have a minister whose sole responsibility is agriculture?
David Cameron will structure his own government if he becomes Prime minister but we will ensure farming is strongly represented around the Cabinet table, which it is not at present.
Will you repeal the fox hunting ban?
We will provide the opportunity for the new House of Commons to repeal the ban with a free vote of MPs.