Flax fans fight back as EU slashes aid

By Andrew Blake

FLAX promoters are fighting hard against EU commission moves to slash the crops area aid to the linseed level, plus some processing aid, and restrict production to IACS land.

Such changes would decimate the fledgling UK industry which has tremendous potential, according to Christopher Spedding of Hants merchant Robin Appel, the firm behind British Fibre.

“But they are only proposals, and as far as we are concerned it is definitely not the end of the line for flax.”

The proposals, which would hit hemp production in the same way, are biased and ill-written, claims Mr Spedding.

“They appear to reflect another attempt by the traditional producers of fibres for linen on the continent to keep the subsidy to themselves. But after 18 years, since the subsidy has been available, they ought to be able to survive without it. It is the developing industry which requires support.”

Similar proposals were made in 1996, but shelved, he notes.

All the expansion in recent years, including that in which BF is involved, is for short-fibre combine-harvested flax where demand outstrips supply, he maintains.

“Well over £1 million of public money has been invested in the UK flax industry by MAFF and the DTI. And we estimate that another £2-3m has come from private funding.

“To pull the plug now just wouldnt make sense.”

Much of the short-fibre material is used to replace wood and plastics, in industries such as car production.

“If the proposals go through in full they would clobber the English flax industry at the stroke of a pen,” says Mark Jones of Dorking-based merchant Attlees.

“We are lobbying hard against them.”

The main effect would be that flax would be grown only on IACS-registered land, whereas 95% is currently produced on ineligible land in livestock areas, he explains.

Rapid expansion of flax-growing in Spain and the UK is said to be the main spur for the EC proposals, though the infant UK hemp industry would also be hit by the moves.

But Spain is currently being investigated under allegations of fraud and the UK area has recently declined, notes the NFUs Stuart Thomson.

The Spanish flax area soared from just 187ha (462 acres) in 1993 to 126,000ha (311,000 acres) or more than half the total EU area, notes Mr Spedding.

Policing of the rules governing production and processing in Spain has been particularly lax, he believes.

By contrast the UK area has stabilised at about 15,000ha (37,000 acres) over the four years since production began seriously, says Mr Jones.

The UK rules have also been tightened so that the minimum seed and fibre yield for 2000 to qualify for subsidy is 2t/ha (16cwt/acre) – twice what it was in 1998. “There is tough legislation.”

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