OPINION: A decade of worrying statistics

As 2013 marks a decade on from the midterm review of the CAP in 2003, it is a good time to assess how British agriculture has prospered over the past 10 years. The fundamental plank of the review was the decoupling of support. English farmers were moved from a policy where they received support payments according to what they produced to one solely based on the acres they occupied.

The idea behind this was that it made us more market-focused which, we were told, was a universal virtue. Having said that, it might be argued that given the unregulated activity of bankers over the past decade, the faith in free-market economics has been somewhat undermined.

Anyway, back to our home agriculture and its decennial report. If there was one key indicator of how well we’ve done it is probably our balance of payments in food and drink. The most recent official figures compare 2001 with 2011 and show that when it comes to exports, there has been steady growth from £12bn to £18bn during the decade. Unfortunately, what overshadows this is an eye-watering £12bn increase in imports from £25bn to £37bn. The UK’s food trade gap has widened, as we no longer feed ourselves as well used to. The most worrying thing about this is that it is not due to the British eating more pineapples and bananas. We have seen huge increases in imports of things such as dairy products, red meat and fresh produce from the rest of the EU. This is produce that used to be grown in the UK, but no longer is.

Even more worrying is the fact this happened in the decade that saw the lifting of restrictions due to BSE and foot-and-mouth disease.

Even for a commodity such as cereals, the gap has widened, and when you consider this is the period that saw the end of set-aside, you wonder how this can have happened. Admittedly, we haven’t seen the figures for 2012 or 2013 yet, but it’s likely things will have got significantly worse.

One positive trend over the decade is that productivity per man has increased. But as the total farm workforce (including farmers) has fallen from 318,000 to 299,000, you realise this has been achieved at a social cost. Most worrying here is that the number of full-time employees on British farms has fallen from 84,000 to 64,000. Another notable trend is that the price of land and rents has double or trebled in the past 10 years. Although tax relief has a part to play in this, so too has a support system that has shifted from one linked to production to one linked to land ownership. This might be good for owner-occupiers like me, but it is undoubtedly bad for new entrants which, in turn, is bad for our industry’s future.

Not many of us would want a return to the bad old days when we grew linseed just for the aid or when we overstocked the hills with sheep just to grab the headage payment, but the question remains as to whether we’ve gone too far with decoupling.

When I hear fellow columnist and sound chap Neale McQuistin celebrating decoupling because it has halved his number of sheep, I can understand how it makes his life easier. But when you examine the stats, serious questions emerge as to what the CAP is doing for rural employment, new entrants and food production in a world increasingly short of food.

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. The farm is officially recognised as the driest spot in the British isles. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-Sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip.

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