Archive Article: 2001/06/15

15 June 2001

New Labours landslide

victory has seen the

emergence of a new

department to shape

farmings destiny. In

order to have a say in

that future farmers

must make their

voices heard

It never ceases to amaze me that after months, if not years, of promoting a package of policies, the day after an election, members of the losing party bare their souls and admit they got it wrong.

It always happens, like the bursting of a dam behind which so many insincerities have been trapped that they must be released. Perhaps it is good for the defeated soul. But it puts into perspective the false and fickle nature of politics which is more about gaining, or regaining power than it is about standing up for what you believe in.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the result of the election is that any party, of whichever colour, should continue to have such an enormous majority. It gives the victors the unrestrained ability to bulldoze through any policy they wish. And it almost certainly militates against minorities – like farmers.

However, we are where we are and will have no chance to change those elected last week for four or five years. William Hague did the honourable thing and fell on his sword, while admitting his "strategy was flawed". Perhaps he and his party might have done better if they had listened to the general population instead of listening to one another. Perhaps we farmers, as we get to grips with the demise of MAFF and the emergence of the new department that will control our destiny, might do well to do likewise.

Because there is little doubt that part of the reason for the marginalisation of agriculture, of which the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is a consequence, is because of our industrys failure to recognise and respond to what was going on around us. We claim to want progress in farming methodology, but we reject change in other areas of activity. If the new department does nothing else, it will force a reassessment of farmings place in the economy and, let us hope, a more enlightened approach from some farmers.

Because most historic affiliations with MAFF will disappear. True, some of the existing MAFF personnel are likely to be moved across to the new department under Margaret Beckett. But given recent and ongoing events, such as the foot-and-mouth debacle, it seems unlikely that many will be given positions of authority. It must be assumed that a new team of senior civil servants will be appointed and a new set of relationships will have to be established with them and their political masters. They are unlikely to possess agricultural knowledge and their sympathies will be with consumers rather than producers.

Furthermore, it is this new and unknown team that will supervise the promised review of agriculture in the wake of F&M. The questions that will be asked will include: Should the livestock industry be allowed to return to its previous stocking levels? The answer will almost certainly be No. Can intensive farming methods, established 20 or 30 years ago, be allowed to continue in the face of consumer rejection? Again the likely answer will be No. And, even more crucially, should the farming industry continue to produce food commodities, or should it devote most of its energies to other things like conservation, tourism and the development of other rural-based industries?

I am quite clear that the answer to that last question should be that agriculture must do all of those things, with food as the core. Moreover, if the industry is inhibited from producing food, it will find it impossible to fulfil the non-farming objectives. In Euro-speak, farmers need to practise multifunctionality, just as they have done increasingly over recent years. And that is not only for the good of agriculture, but also in the best interests of almost 60m other British people.

This is a key message that must be impressed upon, and reinforced to, the members of the agriculture review body, when it is set up. And farmers will only persuade its members to support and, yes, protect them, if they can demonstrate that the industry is in touch with contemporary society; that it can and will respond to the wishes of consumers; and that farmers care as much, if not more, about the countryside in which they operate than the rest of the population.

Those are the top current priorities, whether we like it or not, and if we refuse to accept them, we will find ourselves quickly replaced by foreign farmers whose produce is cheap and whose ethics are of little concern because their production is out of sight.

So, the next few months are crucial. Agriculture can decide to co-operate and, in return, may be helped to survive. Or it can stick to its old ways and go the way of the dinosaur, the dodo and British Coal. Which is it to be? May I suggest, when you have read this, that you decide which direction you favour, then write and tell your newly elected MP so that he or she can use parliamentary influence to try to make it happen. That is what MPs are for and there has never been a greater need to get them on farmers side than the present.

…the next few

months are crucial. Agriculture can decide to co-operate and, in return, survive. Or it can stick to its old ways and go the way of the dinosaur, the dodo and British Coal.

Which is it

to be?

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