5 October 2001


Has Margaret Beckett read Alice in Wonderland? Anyone listening to her speech at the Labour Party conference in Brighton could be forgiven for thinking that her words owed much to the topsy-turvy logic of Lewis Carrolls fable.

For evidence look no further than Mrs Becketts tenuous grasp of the harsh realities of farming life and food production. Consumers are no longer prepared to pay high prices for food, she told the conference. What high prices? In the real world, as a percentage of national income Britons pay less than ever before for top-quality, welfare-friendly British food. The weekly food shopping bill accounts for about only 9% of disposable income compared with nearly 20% 40 years ago.

Journeying back down the rabbit hole of Mrs Becketts twisted logic, we discover that not only must our "high" food prices fall, but farmers must become "market-orientated and customer-focused" as farm support changes.

How does Mrs Beckett believe UK farmers can continue to produce top quality food at bargain basement prices? How can they deliver not only the highest welfare standards in the world, while maintaining our rich and varied countryside, without reasonable prices, fair competition or financial support from Whitehall or Brussels?

Requesting UK farmers to accomplish that impossible balancing act is only slightly more ridiculous than asking them to cut down the tallest tree in the forest with a semi-frozen kipper.

Curiouser and curiouser; no one challenged her views. No one questioned the wisdom of making CAP reform her top priority at a time when morale and incomes in rural Britain are so low.

No one highlighted that without farm support, food prices would rise unless we are content to scour the dustbins of the world for imports.

No one denies the need for change and for farmers to improve their links with consumers. But following Mrs Becketts Alice-in-Wonderland vision of British farmings future would bring no happy ending. Rather it would open a nightmare chapter in our farming history.

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