12 October 2001


Margaret Becketts

speech to the Party

faithful in Brighton

took ones breath away

in the scale of its

inaccuracy and


LAST weeks FW accused DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett of being an Alice in Wonderland after her speech to the Labour Party Conference (Opinion, Oct 5). But could it have been more sinister than that? For it had all the hallmarks of a stitch-up, of a minister spouting spin-doctors words to an agreed agenda intended ultimately to lead to the virtual demise of farming. Either that, or she has learned nothing about British agriculture since she was put in charge of it in June.

Her speech was hectoring, like a headmistress lecturing naughty children. She told farmers (few if any of whom were in the hall) that they must "change or die". Her message was intended to impress the party faithful, not the industry she was bullying. Farmers are "out of tune" with those on whom they depend for markets, she told her audience. "What society as a whole wants from agriculture is changing, and changing irrevocably," she said. "The…European public will… no longer permit farming simply to carry on as before, let alone pay for it, whether through taxation or through high consumer prices."

There were seven minutes of such stuff and the insults and inaccuracies regarding UK agriculture left me gasping. They implied, among other things, that we fail consistently to change; that we are using management and marketing systems years out of date and that we do not respond to market forces. I wonder how she thinks we have survived until now? For farming is about constant adaptation to economic, environmental and market circumstances as well as government policies.

In recent years, for instance, our industry has introduced a comprehensive range of commodity assurance schemes to improve the safety and ethics of products and to give consumers confidence. Specialist farmers have geared up to produce, process and pack to the highest standards for supermarkets whose demands are insatiable.

Responding to economic pressures, our industry has introduced contracting arrangements to enable the most efficient operators to expand the area under their management and cut unit costs. Farmers facing declining or non-existent margins have set up machinery rings through which they share tackle.

Farmers have diversified into thousands of different schemes to try to make enough money to continue producing food for the nation at less than cost. Some have sold produce at farmers markets; others have opened their own farm shops; most have produced for specific market demand. It could be argued that they have done two jobs and worked twice as hard simply to carry on farming. But they have done it and in so doing have, in effect, subsidised the nations daily food. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 workers have been shed in the past two years alone.

Those farmers who resisted change have already left the profession. Some who have recently declined to accept what they judge an unacceptable ongoing challenge are planning to do so. Those who remain, and the numbers are declining daily, know very well they must embrace change and at an accelerating rate. They do not need Mrs Beckett to belittle their efforts or intelligence and add further to their unjustified poor image by publicly adding to the list of lies and half-truths about them.

Furthermore, and this is the most breathtaking aspect of Mrs Becketts speech, the main reason many farmers have been forced out of the industry is because government incompetence, or if you follow my argument, victimisation, has made it impossible for them to earn even the statutory minimum wage and left them no alternative.

The catalogue of ineptitude combined with what I now suggest may be a stitch-up is endless. Consider one or two examples. As NFU president Ben Gill told Mrs Beckett at the Labour Party Conference, EU area aid to cereal growers has, over the past five years, increased by 15%. Meanwhile, here in the UK, because of currency differences cereal aid has fallen by 18%. The EU foresaw the possibility for inequality when it set the policy and invited member states to apply for compensation for farmers. UK cereal growers are eligible for £57m that must be applied for by the end of October or it disappears into the black hole of the EU budget. There is no sign that anything is being done.

The disaster of F&M goes on in spite of government assurances since May that "it is under control". But unbelievably there has been no visible tightening up on illegal imports of possibly infected meat and other produce. You can still walk through immigration channels at ports and airports carrying all kinds of potentially lethal substances.

If Osama bin Laden wanted to indulge in germ warfare, and God help us if he does, he could simply bring in the bugs in a suitcase. Experience suggests he would be unlikely to be stopped and inspected.

Mrs Beckett and her government should get their own house in order before they cast aspersions on an honourable profession that has endured more unjust criticism than it can tolerate. Give farming a fair chance and it will deliver the goods. Treat it like a contagious disease and it will collapse, taking great chunks of the economy with it.

Farming is about constant adaptation

to economic,

environmental and

market circumstances as well as



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