Roast beef under threat from EU subsidy changes
By Robert Uhlig, Farming correspondent
The traditional joint of British roast beef is threatened because tens of thousands of cattle farmers plan to retire in two years, when subsidy reforms come into effect.
The National Beef Association says proposals to be unveiled next week by Franz Fischler, the EU agriculture commissioner, will kill off British beef production.
Farmers' leaders said that without cattle grazing, vast areas of the countryside, including the South Downs, the South-West and large parts of Wales, could be overrun by gorse, bracken, brambles and hawthorn within a few years.
Under the proposals, part of radical reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers will no longer be paid according to the number of animals they keep or the area they cultivate.
Instead, subsidies will be "decoupled" from production and all farmers will receive a single annual payment, even if they do not produce food.
Provided they keep land in agricultural condition - mowing pastures, draining ditches and maintaining hedges - farmers would receive a payment based on the average of their subsidies from 2000 to 2002.
Robert Foster, chief executive of the National Beef Association, said the changes would mean that most beef farmers would be better off retiring in 2005, when, according to leaked CAP reform details, Mr Fischler intends decoupling to come into effect.
"Beef farming will be affected more than any other sector by decoupling," Mr Foster said. "We would lose half the national herd within five years and without critical mass, the industry will shut down."
Beef farmers currently receive more than #300 subsidy per animal. With decoupling, they will receive the same subsidy for less effort and without the risk of selling their animals for less than the cost of fattening them for market.
Sir Don Curry, the Government's sustainable food and farming enforcer, said that although he supported reform of the CAP in favour of more environmentally beneficial practices, he was concerned at the effect of decoupling.
"Beef farming is most at risk through decoupling," he said. "It is essential that the beef industry finds ways of building better structures and reducing costs before it comes into effect if it wants to survive.
"Having been through BSE and foot and mouth, it would be a disaster if we killed off the beef industry because we did not take appropriate measures to protect the supply chain."
But having been financially and emotionally battered by the collapse of beef prices following BSE and foot and mouth, many cattle farmers are counting on decoupling as a route to retirement.
Walter Brown, 54, a beef and sheep farmer at Pancrasweek, west Devon, said he and many of his colleagues would be "very tempted" by decoupling to reduce their herds or give up altogether. "Beef farmers have been beaten into the ground in recent years and I have little hope that the market will get much better," he said.
"I look forward to the day when I might receive a payment for maintaining my farm and looking after the countryside, without the costs of cattle farming. But I am concerned that while decoupling might be good for farmers, it will damage the rural economy, driving livestock markets, abattoirs and contractors out of business."