Daily Mail / Christopher Booker/Wednesday 30 January
Yesterday's report commissioned by Tony Blair from Sir Donald Curry on the future of farming was meant to address one of the biggest riddles confronting our country.Why in recent years has Britain's farming industry has been brought to its knees in a way not true of any other in Europe?
To solve this puzzle is, in its own way, as important as solving the problems of our health service or our railways. On it depends not just the quality of the food we eat and the livelihoods of millions of people.The entire character of our countryside depends on a living, thriving agriculture, bringing with it rural tourist income worth £12 billion a year and supporting a food production industry worth £64 billion. Everyone knows Britain's farmers have lately been through the worst nightmare in memory, to which foot-and-mouth was just a final straw. Even before that crisis, average farm incomes were less than £100 a week. Prices in every sector had crashed through the floor, as supermarkets bought cheaper food from the continent. Farmers were already leaving the industry at a rate of 25,000 a year. Yet what makes this such a riddle is that, in many ways, both in quality and productivity, British farming seemed capable of competing with any in the world. In the middle of this nightmare, Sir Donald Curry and his team, including representatives of the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and an American lady banker but very few farmers, have come up with a dream: what they call their 'Vision' of how farming might be saved.
What they want to see, they say at the start of their report, is an England in which "farmers are rewarded to look after the land and for providing an attractive countryside". Subsidies, they accept,are inevitable, but they want a massive switch in emphasis.
No more barley barons being given £1 million a year by the taxpayers for turning East Anglia into treeless prairies.They want subsidies to be redirected so that farming can be carried on in the most environmental, quality-conscious, welfare-friendly manner possible.
They want hedges and trees for birds, and sheep to continue cropping the hills of the Lake District, to prevent them reverting to bracken. They want more organic food and local farmers' markets (although this comes on the same page where they accept that nothing is going to stop 95 percent of people continuing to shop in supermarkets).
In other words, they have a 'Vision' of the future of farming to which almost everyone could subscribe. So long as one doesn't look too closely at the realities of the world in which farmers actually have to operate, and which are the chief reason why our farming is in terminal crisis.
What Sir Donald and his team have come up with is no more than a massive dollop of make-believe. They begin with their dream of how they would like to see farming in England develop. Only peripherally do they acknowledge, however, that is not in England that most of the key decisions will be taken but in Brussels. What they are really saying is not so much "this is what a British Government should do to help English farming", as "this is how the Government should try to persuade our European partners to reform the Common Agricultural Policy". And they are then forced to concede that no reform of the CAP will be possible until 2006 at the earliest, even if our partners can be talked into seeing things their way. It is true, as they point out, that there have already been moves towards shifting subsidies from production to what is called 'rural development', allowing for more weight to be given to environmental and social considerations.
But here comes another massive snag which Curry does not even mention: that it is precisely this new system he favours which more than anything highlights just why British farmers are now the worst off in Europe and likely to become more so. The 'rural development fund' enables Brussels to provide subsidies only when national governments are prepared to chip in equal money from their own taxpayers. But in Britain's case our government must put in not 50 percent but 83 percent.
This is thanks to the small-print attached to the famous EU budget rebate negotiated by Mrs Thatcher in 1984. The tight-fisted Treasury is therefore reluctant to claim such funding, because it means British taxpayers must contribute four fifths of the cash.
The result is that while Britain currently receives £230 million a year from this fund, much of which goes to consultants, France gets £1.2 billion. Ireland, with only a quarter Britain's number of farms, claims £500 million.
Yet it is precisely with these other EU farmers that British farmers have to compete to sell their produce. Add to this that all subsidies are in euros, which have so massively devalued against the pound, and it is hardly surprising that British supermarkets are rushing to buy their products much more cheaply from the continent. And for Britain to join the euro at the current exchange rate would only lock us into this disadvantage for ever.
This is the real answer to the riddle of why British farming has been brought to its knees. Because it is expected to compete on a playing field about as unlevel as the north face of Everest, largely thanks to our own government.
Add to this the fact that we also have a government which seems to have a visceral hatred of farmers and everything the countryside stands for, and you can see why the vacuous wishful thinking of the Curry report is not worth the glossy paper it is printed on. As far as our farmers are concerned, it is just another horribly cruel joke.