David Richardson: Farmers need aid, not acronyms

English Food and Farming Partnerships published a book of acronyms for organisations associated with food, farming and the countryside a few months ago.

It provides a reference on what and who those bodies are. But even I, who should be hardened to the multiplicity of quangos, lobby groups and others, was shocked by the number – all living off the back of farming in one way or another. There were hundreds and any one of us could find ourselves having to deal with them at any time.

A few weeks ago DEFRA admitted it had failed to meet its 20% target of reducing red tape for our industry. Farming minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, said the department was still trying to cut the regulatory burden. But there had so far been a reduction of only 16%. I have no means of checking whether that figure was accurate, although my gut feeling suggests there’s been little change, or perhaps more added. In other words, the 16% claimed to have been chopped were probably out of date or redundant anyway.

Jim Paice, the Shadow Agriculture Minister said the failure to streamline regulation was unacceptable and that government should abolish all but the essential rules relating to food safety and the like and allow farmers to regulate themselves for the rest. If we get it wrong through carelessness, the Paice policy would be to punish us, which sounds reasonable to me. He may have an opportunity to put his words into practice in a few months, so I for one will watch with interest.

Much of this red tape has, of course, historically come out of Europe and, in Brussels, UK government representatives are negotiating a new CAP to replace the present regime that runs out in 2013. Along with a handful of other EU states, Britain has pursued a policy of virtually abolishing Single Farm Payments in favour of an expansion in rural development schemes. Farming, this minority say, must rely on the market. There are food shortages ahead that will force prices to rise and commodity producers will do well.

Back here in the farm office we still have wheat to sell from last year’s harvest. We know it cost us around £125/t to grow. We’ve dried it and stored it for six months and the merchant says it’s worth £90/t. His advice is to sell now because what with carryover stocks in America, lower world demand because of the financial crisis and increased plantings across Europe as well as here in the UK, its value will drop further. Is he right? Who knows but I do know what it feels like to be over a barrel.

As I have said in these columns before, I honestly believe we will have food shortages in the foreseeable future because of global population growth and other reasons. But I will be surprised if it happens for a few years. And even if we get another sudden jump in demand and price, like we did in 2008, it may not last – just like it didn’t this time.

Therefore – and I worry that few politicians have understood this yet – in order to keep production agriculture viable and available for the time when we really are at crisis point, aid to farmers must continue. Whether it is paid, as now, on a decoupled basis, or reverts to being production based is almost irrelevant. The point is farming cannot survive through volatile times without public money. Maybe one day, when there are 9 billion mouths to feed, it will be possible. But we’re not there yet and it will probably take a few more acronyms before we are.