The world changed for us all

Dec 28 2002

By Rob Simpson, The Journal


The North's farmers will probably remember 2002 as the year after foot-and-mouth disease.

Each passing month without any sign of the disease has re-assured us that the countryside is finally rid of this pestilence.

As the year began, livestock farmers were learning to cope with new restrictions and the Government was facing demands for a public inquiry into its handling of the crisis.

Instead of a public inquiry, though, the Government commissioned three separate inquests looking at what lessons could be learnt, the spread of the disease and the future of food and farming.

It is the last inquest which is arguably the most significant for agriculture.

Chaired by Sir Don Curry, formerly of the UK's meat promotional body, the policy commission made a number of recommendations targeted at developing a sustainable, competitive and diverse farming and food sector.

If the recommendations are fully implemented by the Government, they have the potential to accelerate change and leave the entire rural economy on a more positive footing.

One such recommendation proposed a new agri-environmental scheme designed to support large numbers of farmers who are carrying out environmental work on their land - the so-called entry-level scheme.

Launched as a pilot project in November, the scheme could provide real benefits to both the countryside and the farmer.

But the inquiries were not the only legacy of foot-and-mouth.

The livestock industry was still shackled with a 20-day standstill throughout 2002 which has caused major disruption to the farm-to-farm sale of animals, particularly sheep.

The measures were designed to combat the spread of foot-and-mouth disease but 15 months on from the last outbreak it is difficult to see the justification for such onerous restrictions to continue.

The year 2002 has also been a difficult one for farm prices.

Arable farmers brought in a bumper crop but its sale hardly covered their costs.

Policy makers have often told British farmers that if they can't compete on world prices, they should quit. But farmers would have gladly accepted the world price for grain this year because it would been double what they sold theirs for.

Meanwhile, the price which dairy farmers were getting for their milk - a paltry 9p a pint, compared to an average retail price of 36p - was highlighted by the NFU this autumn.

Negotiations with retailers and processors succeeded in raising the milk price by 1p a pint at the farmgate. It was a welcome move but dairy farmers are still losing money and they're still going out of business.

The collapse in farm incomes which made headlines five years ago hardly raises an eyebrow today. But it has manifested itself in an exodus from the countryside.

In Yorkshire and the North East, in just one year, 3,624 farmers and farm workers lost their jobs.

And this year, for the first time, more farmers than workers are leaving the industry.

It's not tea and sympathy farmers want or need.

They need a government to work with, not against them; they need commitment from the supermarkets to buy British food and they must persuade the caterers -restaurants, pubs and public sector providers - to use British produce wherever possible.

How can it be right for the UK Government to prattle on about raising farm standards (and, in turn, costs) but then refuse to pay for British food for the Army, civil servants, hospitals and schools?

The NFU launched a logo for quality British food two years ago.

Today, the British Farm Standard logo (the little red tractor) can be found on hundreds of items of farm assured British food in the supermarkets.

It's only a start and the entire food industry must help promote quality British food.

It doesn't mean consumers buying British just because it's British.

It means if consumers are serious about wanting food produced to exacting standards of animal welfare, environmental and food safety, they should demonstrate it by buying food featuring the little red tractor logo.

* Rob Simpson is NFU information officer for Yorkshire and the North-East.