The taste of freedom

Michael Wigan says that British farmers and consumers would be better off -- and better fed -- if we left the CAP 
It is becoming interesting to speculate when the agricultural slump will have an impact on the government. The latest predictions from the accountants Deloitte and Touche are that farmers will get only subsistence returns for the next five years. The author Mark Hill believes that by screwing farm incomes into the ground the government might be unwittingly in the process of exporting a food industry that is worth £65 billion and which employs half a million people. He says, Farmers are going to start asking, "Why should we carry on producing food at a loss?"

He is a little behind: farmers feet are already swinging on to the sofa. The UK area planted with wheat has fallen by 100,000 hectares since 2000. The barley area has dropped by 62,000 hectares. The horticultural sector, which includes vegetable, fruit and glasshouse production, is now active on 165,00 hectares, down from 172,000 in 2000. Cattle numbers have fallen by a million; sheep by seven million. If you talk to estate owners, most are planning their exit from this loss-making activity, either now or when elderly farmworkers retire. Set-aside (land left uncropped) has risen to more than one million hectares.

Britains anti-farmer bias has resulted in a move from approximate food self-reliance to food-import dependence. Not long ago we ate largely British meat. Home production of beef and veal is now 72 per cent; of mutton and lamb 74 per cent; of pork 78 per cent. These figures are plummeting. If consumers want to believe the stuff about food quality and farm assurance, they must suppose that our food suppliers -- from Israel, Portugal, Spain, New Zealand, France, wherever -- abide by the ultra-tight standards now in place here. Ignorance is bliss.

Politicians have been extraordinarily successful in working up hatred of farmers on the grounds that they receive enormous subsidies. Now that more hedgerows are planted than are grubbed up each year, subsidy is the only basis for the kicking farmers get from the metropolitan media. The premise is deceiving. In 2001 69,325 out of 177,934 farm holdings in England and Wales filled in the Iacs form, which is the basis of subsidy entitlement. In other words, 60 per cent of farmers get no subsidy. When did a politician mention that?

The British public believe that all farming is subsidised. In reality, swathes of the agricultural industry operate in what should be a politician-free market. Egg and poultry production, salad-growing, potato-growing and pork-meat production, to name a few, are outside the subsidy system. Many livestock farmers who could claim subsidy elect not to bother. The subsidy has been falling for years, and filling in the labyrinthine forms, with draconian penalties for mistakes, is increasingly regarded as pointless.

This is the background to a debate about whether Britain should be inside or outside the Common Agricultural Policy. Opinion is polarised: some say that independence would be a disaster, others that it would save the rural economy. One view is that if a minority of producers are beneficiaries, why not climb out of the mire and become free to trade anywhere we choose? Instead of growers having to produce specific types of apples deemed acceptable by bureaucrats in the European Commission, and instead of homogenising the colour and shape of carrots for the same fastidious powers, food could be grown again for what it is: a product of nature, necessarily consumable.

If agriculture takes up half the EU budget, Britain could demand the halving of its European contribution, huge funds thereby becoming available to market our farm goods worldwide and make our farming industries the competitive, cutting-edge industries they once were. Farmers could grow new crops without being disadvantaged by a competing CAP-cushioned crop, supported by the sort of aggressive marketing which made New Zealand, after subsidies were dropped, synonymous with global products. To overcome subsidised competition from Europe, guarantees on standards of production, tight delivery schedules, bona fide provenance and ex-farm quality checking could tie in processors.

EU regulations have acted like Russian central planning, in dictating which areas should grow what. Examples abound of the wrong crop in the wrong place, like dairy cows grazing the flower-rich volcanic mountains of the Azores to provide Portugals milk. Britain, by geophysical fate, is suited to producing beef and sheep-meat from the hills, cereals from the eastern lowlands, and vegetables and fruit according to region. Once more there could be plums from Perthshire, apples from Worcestershire and Kent. Without the dictatorial CAP, oilseeds could produce industrial lubricants, starch crops could be grown for packaging, and biofuels from wheat and beets could provide clean alternative energy. At present British agricultural incomes languish at the bottom of the EU league table, though Britains agricultural sector is in theory highly advanced. Its farms are the biggest, its labour unit rates are economical, its land, blessed with a temperate climate, some of the best. What has been lacking are politicians versed in the food industry. Instead, political parties parrot each others demands for CAP reform. Their weirdly synchronised ululation has the same point of departure -- the shortcomings of our own farming.

This has been spotted by our dumbfounded European competitors. They have identified in British politicians some of their soundest allies. Our own agriculture ministers can be relied on to pontificate, like Margaret Beckett, on the virtues of foreign food. They discriminate against home producers. They did to the production of pigs what is about to be done to egg production -- that is, to apply European welfare rules here that will not be applied to our competitors until later, when our producers are long gone. The latest own-goal is a requirement for pigs to be supplied with playthings, such as toys and footballs; our own egg producers will now have to stamp each egg, tracing it back to the mother-hen.

We have become adept at exporting our own industries. Those producers who stubbornly insist on providing food for Britain have, in many cases, moved their farm operations abroad, where labour costs are lower, by a factor of up to 20 or 30, and inspections by officials are a rarity. Britain uses egg powder from China, and chicken from Thailand is a staple in the national diet.

The supermarkets would whimper a bit if Britain left the CAP. It has suited them well to have farmers hog-tied with red tape, devoid (unlike themselves) of parliamentary representation and producing predictable crops. In many foodstuffs, supermarkets control 80 per cent of sales; that stranglehold would be loosened if farmers were free to grow whatever they wished. Some might say that they can do so now; if that is the case, what of the live lamb trade, ferociously opposed by the government, protected under EU law, and welcomed with salivating glee by Spanish and French consumers?

Some say that if we unleashed British agriculture from the CAP, it would be reshackled by World Trade Organisation rulings on unfair trade. Yet the WTO has not stopped America presenting its farmers with the biggest aid package ever: $190 billion over six years.

The fishing industry has been so savaged by domestic politicians that fishermen have created a breakaway group -- Save Britains Fish -- which advocates leaving the Common Fisheries Policy. Farmers have yet to follow the same logic, anaesthetised, for the most part, by the #3 billion drip-feed from Europe. A combination of more intrusion (subsidies to livestock farmers will soon depend on welfare officers approval) and shrivelling state payments (in the pipeline) may change that.

For such a secession to work, though, the politicians would need to recognise a vital industry and get behind it to promote exports, as New Zealands did when they opted to become the first country to jettison direct farm subsidies. The pound would need to reach an export-favouring level. That combination may be hard to imagine. But times change, and a further acceleration of the already ballooning balance-of-trade deficit may yet pry open the modish anti-farmer mindset.

Michael Wigan is a farmer