Opinion : David Richardson 14/01/05

THE TRADITION of opening the Oxford Farming Conference with high-ranking UK politicians is one next year’s organising council might do well to re-examine. They seldom add to existing knowledge and are there more to enhance their own positions than to improve agriculture. So it was last week.

Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, spoke at the opening dinner. He had launched the first instalment of the Conservative Manifesto for the forthcoming election earlier that day, so he had been busy. Even so his speech, sections of which seemed to have been written by half a dozen people, betrayed his lack of real interest and some of his speechwriters’ lack of real knowledge, of farming.

Next morning the minister for food, farming and sustainable energy, Lord Whitty, was first on the platform. He has learned a lot since he first took the job, when his speeches were dire. But at Oxford he parroted the same words about sustainability, the opportunities created by CAP reform and the fact that food self-sufficiency was not a current issue.

At his press conference afterwards I tried to broaden the discussion by pointing out that the American Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, almost a template for decoupling aid from production, had lasted only about four years before being replaced by counter-cyclical aid, a dead-ringer for the UK’s old deficiency payments. The USA, I suggested, had wisely exchanged a flawed system that relied on price volatility to control production for one that was more likely to deliver production and price stability. When decoupling failed, could we do the same?

My question was not as off-the-wall as it might seem because he had earlier conceded that the future of the new package was by no means secure long term. But he gave me a condescending smile and said it would not do to copy the American system because it was unlikely to survive World Trade Organisation examination. Meanwhile, in 2004 US farmers enjoyed their best profits for years and are looking to more of the same.

Lord Whitty was also asked if he was happy that the food trade gap, the difference in value between the food we import and export, had almost doubled to a deficit of more than 11bn since Labour came to power. He replied that he was happy to see us import more, but would like to see us export more as well so the gap did not widen.

He did not mention that the UK’s retailers are scouring the world for cheap commodities and that the rate of imports is accelerating, while the high value of sterling is making exporting harder. In other words, he was talking claptrap.

Jonathon Porritt, the archpriest of conservationists and an unlikely ally of agriculture, did not put it so bluntly, but substantially agreed with my analysis. “Economic stability (of farming) has not appeared to be well understood or addressed by the UK government in recent years,” Mr Porritt said.

There were four key factors to sustainability, he added: That food production must be at the heart of any sustainable system; that liberalisation of trade must be done in ways that do not undermine domestic producers; that exporting production to other countries less regulated than ourselves is counterproductive – all it does is move problems elsewhere. And, last, that increasing carbon use and environmental pollution must be curtailed and that farming can be part of the solution rather than being seen as most of the problem.

A lot has been made of Mr Porritt’s criticism of the Little Red Tractor. But he spoke the truth when he said it represented a baseline standard that could and should be improved. Those who administer assurance schemes know that well. Indeed it was obvious that the LRT scheme would be subject to improvement. What he went on to say was that farmers who achieved higher standards deserved higher prices, which was not reported everywhere.

The second day threw up some inspirational stories of individual entrepreneurship. Many delegates will have gone home ready to try something similar. But one fact might have been overlooked. Many of the most successful diversifications are within easy reach of London and/or near many chimney pots. It is not impossible to succeed in remote areas, but you are more likely to do well if your farm is in the right location.

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