Who should we trust most to ensure a prosperous future for British agriculture?
Can we expect it from a reformed CAP after MEPs from 27 countries, together with commissioners and officials in Brussels, have agreed it? Or would prospects be better from a British government of whatever colour or mixture, were farm policies to be repatriated? Implied in my questions, of course, is the fundamental one – would we prefer to stay in the EU or pull out?
There are, I know, many British farmers who would prefer politics played no part in our industry and would rather take their chance in the marketplace. I have some sympathy with that view. But a moment’s thought leads to the conclusion that it’s unrealistic.
Food and its raw materials cannot avoid politics. If governments by their actions or, in the case of this country, by its relative inaction except with regard to matters such as safety, failed to ensure the people over which they rule have enough to eat, they would provoke revolution. Those of us who produce a significant proportion of that food cannot escape political interference and must make the best of it. So, let’s review what to expect – in or out – based on current experience.
The EU seems likely to fail to agree on the next CAP reform by the end of this month. It is in any case beholden to extreme Greens in countries like Germany and Denmark and consensus becomes confused when more than two dozen national governments insist on injecting their priorities into any new policy.
The only things the EU seems able to agree on are more regulations on such things as banning neonicotinoids for two years, in the vain belief that bees will benefit. Scientists and thinking beekeepers say it will do more harm than good to the bee population. But politics has bowed to misguided Green pressure yet again, as it did a couple of years ago when a range of other tried-and-tested chemicals were banned.
Indeed, at a time when world population and increasing demand for food dictate the need to increase and optimise food production, the EU insists on imposing a range of policies that limit and frustrate what farmers seek to achieve. Not least is the potential EU plan, if agreed, to transfer aid payments from food-producing farmers to rural development. And this at a time when the farmers of Europe and especially Britain are suffering hardship from the worst weather and lowest profits for years.
Here in Britain our political leaders seem to spend most of their time calling one another rude names, discussing minority interests such as same-sex marriage and running scared of Nigel Farage and UKIP. The Coalition is in chaos; parts of the NHS are in danger of meltdown; benefit fraud is out of control; the economy is flat-lining; and despite expenditure cuts, national debt increases every year.
Meanwhile, the food trade gap is increasing; TB in cattle has reached epidemic proportions costing £100m a year and rising; farm incomes fell 14% last year and seem set to fall further this year; farmers’ borrowing has reached an all-time high; more of us are turning to emergency charities than ever before; and the secretary of state for the environment has said he wants to axe all farm aid.
So, should we stay in Europe or pull out? Or should we, as David Cameron suggests, stay in but renegotiate our relationship?
Confused? If you’re not, you must be very badly informed.
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.