Words to wave in new ag ministers

Dear Messrs Paterson and Heath.

First, congratulations to you both on your recent appointments at DEFRA – although you will be aware that many farmers were disappointed at the departure of Caroline Spelman and Jim Paice. During their time in office they tackled some difficult issues, such as bovine TB and badgers and the milk crisis, and most in our industry believed they had come to the correct conclusions to bring about practical solutions. Your first days at DEFRA will be assessed on how effectively you continue their good work.

We read that you are both familiar with agricultural politics and have strong views that coincide with those held by farmers. If that is the case we have little to fear. But it is inconceivable that you are fully up to date with all the issues you will have to deal with and I therefore remind you of one of the most important.

I refer to the renegotiation of the CAP. Progress in resolving the many different policy positions held by the agriculture ministers of member states, it has been reported, has been depressingly slow. The timetable set for reaching agreement was always too optimistic and even the revised date for implementation, a year later than originally planned, is beginning to seem hopelessly unrealistic.

However, as I am sure you will agree, it is more important to get it right than to do it quickly. And while I fully understand the difficulty faced by one member state among 27 in exercising a decisive influence on the EU, perhaps a quiet chat with Agriculture Commissioner Ciolos might help break the logjam.

As you will know he is sticking rigidly to his proposal to further “green” the CAP. In doing so he is clearly seeking the political approval of the sizeable environmental constituency spread across a number of original members of the community. Moreover, he has stated that the main justifications for the continuation of aid to EU farmers are the green policies and regulations imposed by EU consumers and taxpayers. But the implication of his policy, were it to be adopted, would be to reduce food production across the EU while the rest of the world is frantically trying to maximise production to satisfy increasing demand.

That is not to say I have become anti-environment. I think my record as founder chairman of LEAF speaks for itself. But I am with Prof Sir John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, when he calls for “sustainable intensification”. My interpretation of that is the optimisation of yield – using only the quantity of inputs needed for likely production and not wasting fertiliser and sprays on crops and land that are never likely to break records.

As for the justification of continuing government and/or EU aid to farmers – you should never forget that such payments were introduced to stabilise the production of food and the price at which it could be sold to consumers. In those days, when more politicians understood agriculture, they recognised the vulnerability of farming to weather. This year has provided an object lesson that this vulnerability, both here in the UK and across the globe, still exists – and how.

To continue to plan for the abolition or even significant reduction of aid after such a harvest would be totally inappropriate and create even bigger food shortages than are probably inevitable anyway.

A few such thoughts in Mr Ciolos’s ear might work wonders for the CAP talks and speed up agreement.

Yours truly,

David Richardson

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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