Farm ministers sound

5 October 2001

Farm ministers sound

grimmest warnings yet

By Isabel Davies

and Alistair Driver

GOVERNMENT ministers issued their starkest warnings yet that urgent and radical changes are on the way for the farm industry, as they addressed a series of meetings at the Labour Party conference in Brighton.

In the highest profile speech she has made so far as DEFRA minister, Margaret Beckett warned on Tues, Oct 2 that status quo was not an option. Junior minister, Elliot Morley, went further on Wednesday suggesting subsidies were "done for" and would be scrapped completely.

The wider European public would no longer permit farming simply to carry on as before – let alone pay for it – whether through taxation or high consumer prices, warned Mrs Beckett.

"What society as a whole wants from agriculture is changing and probably changing irrevocably," she said. There was no long-term future for an industry which could not develop in line with market forces. There wasnt even a rosy short-term future for the industry if it became completely out of tune with its customers.

"It is my considered judgement that we dare not listen to those siren voices who murmur that because change will undoubtedly be difficult we should postpone it for another year, or another five years, or another generation. The world will not wait," she warned.

Mrs Beckett, who had earlier in the week said she was willing to be a "friend, but a critical friend" of the farming industry, said she recognised the role of agriculture within the rural economy. "It remains and will always remain the case, that agriculture is a vital, even a central, ingredient, in its life and its prosperity – not the whole of the rural community but at its core."

It was a concept that had already been put forward, although in stronger terms, by NFU president Ben Gill.

It was a misleading myth that agriculture could be ignored because it only contributed 1%-1.5% of gross domestic product, he said. Farming was a key part of the food chain which contributed 14% of GDP and it was also central to the tourism industry because it created the countryside that people wanted to see.

"I would suggest that if we add back tourism into the mix, that 14% – contributed by the food industry – would probably rise to something nearer 20%. In other words, farming is at the core of a fifth of this economy," he said.

But Mr Gill found himself clashing with junior DEFRA minister Elliot Morley as they shared a platform on the final day of the conference.

Mr Morley caused controversy when he said "subsidies are done for, they are going to go, nobody doubts that". He later added: "When I say end to subsidies I mean it. They have to go and they will go."

Mr Gill accepted there would be change but said subsidies should not be scrapped altogether. &#42

"In my lifetime I do not believe we will be in a position to get rid of subsidies altogether. A decoupling of support is what we need."

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