17 August 2001


Its a strange co-

incidence that criticism

of government handling

of the F&Mcrisis has

been accompanied by

juicy, anti-farmer leaks

I dont know if government spin doctors released F&M compensation figures to the media. They could only have come from DEFRA, whether provided innocently or not. But leaks have occurred consistently whenever government handling of the crisis was criticised. The juicy detail that 37 farmers were likely to receive over £1m was a gift to headline writers.

Having picked up the story in the first instance, some hacks have since relented. We can only assume their research into the capital value of pedigree livestock exceeded that of DEFRA. Or perhaps they were sore at having been taken for yet another ride. For some of them have pointed out that valuations are independent. That the situation has, from the beginning, been claimed by government to be "under control". So any mismanagement must be its own responsibility.

Further, it has been made clear there is no compensation for loss of income. The allegation that F&M costs have already amounted to more than the profit made by the entire UK farming industry last year says more about the amount of capital tied up in farming, the tiny returns to be made from it, and the almost terminal state of some sectors, than it does about the size of some claims.

DEFRAs recent insistence that all livestock farmers must insure against F&M in future instead of relying on government is a joke. My broker told me long ago that insurance companies will cover against the possibility of an accident but not the probability. If the latter, premiums are prohibitive. Imagine what underwriters response would be to the events of the past six months, plus the likelihood of increasing quantities of meat and other livestock products coming to Britain from areas of the world known to be infected with the disease.

The NFU has published a series of reasoned proposals which, if implemented, would go a long way towards limiting the risk of re-importing infectious diseases. The response from DEFRA has been a deafening silence. The response from the Prime Minister in speeches made abroad can only be described as crass in their insensitivity.

On his visits to both Brazil and Argentina he is reported to have told political leaders that Britain was ready to help their faltering economies by importing more from them. He congratulated them on their free trading principles and deplored the lack of enthusiasm for the WTO among some of our EU partners. What Europe needs is the same kind of inspired leadership as exists in South America, he seemed to be saying.

It cannot have escaped his attention, or that of his advisers, that the main exports of the countries he visited are agricultural. Furthermore, that F&M is endemic in both. What presumably appealed to him was that production costs of food are lower than in the UK and Europe. What he obviously missed (or did he?) was the exploitation of land, labour, environment and animal welfare which takes place in order to produce and be able to export at low prices. So much for ethics. So much for environmental concerns. So much for his own countrys farmers who will be driven out of business by his double standards and his obsession with free trade.

In the unlikely event that the Prime Minister, who, it is reported, is already planning for a third term in office, reads this, may I spell out once again the dangers his policies imply. For by seeking the short-term benefits of still more cheap food from world markets he will destroy the domestic production base.

Farmers in Britain, even those with large acreages who seem to be thought immune from economic pressures, saddled with the regulations and overheads of living and working in this country, cannot compete with the exploitative methods employed in developing countries. It may appear that such trade is beneficial to workers, but having visited many of the countries concerned it is clear to me that the only people who gain are the corporate bosses and the often corrupt governments. Workers continue to be exploited as before.

Quite apart from the inconsistencies of Mr Blairs approach, claiming to want to protect citizens rights, the environment and so on in Britain but ignoring similar concerns abroad, if the price is right, there is the matter of food security. The Prime Minister has often claimed global warming and climate change are realities. That must mean the production of crops world-wide will change. It may be easier. It may be more difficult. Either way there will be a period of adjustment which could take many years.

Meanwhile, world population is set to rise by 50% in the next 40 to 50 years. It will rise by 10% to 15% by 2010 when Mr Blairs third term could end and food shortages may already have begun to show. I suggest it would be politically expedient for him to take the statesmanlike long-term approach to farming rather than rely on dubious short-term political gain. For the balance of payments could look very different if shortages drove up the price of imported food. And tourists are unlikely to want to visit Britain if most farms have been abandoned and the landscape is down to set-aside.

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