Farmers need delivery, not talk

Fordyce Maxwell in The Scotsman March 27 2002
IT'S ALMOST a year since the Prime Minister held his first farming "summit" at Number 10. That was about how foot-and-mouth was being dealt with and he told farmers he was right behind them - without adding in which direction he was heading.

Most farmers believe that since then the Prime Minister has not backed soothing words with useful action. Sideshows such as fox hunting have not helped, or the general belief that Margaret Beckett and Lord Whitty were shunted unwillingly into their jobs in the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

In at least one summit meeting last year, Jim Walker, NFU Scotland president, told the Prime Minister face to face where he was going wrong and what needed to be done.

Walker was not at Downing Street yesterday to repeat the dose because the meeting, chaired by the Prime Minister, was based mainly on the recommendations of the recent Curry report on sustainable farming for England and Wales.

Scotland produced its own strategy on the same lines last June. Last night, Walker was in Dumfries taking part in a BBC2 Scotland programme on foot-and-mouth and the way ahead for the countryside, as was Ross Finnie, minister for environment and rural development, Robin Harper, Green MSP, and Rowena Hume, from New Zealand.

It is unfair to judge a programme unseen, but if organic farming, abolition of subsidies and Lesley Riddoch hectoring everyone involved in the foot-and-mouth operation don't feature, I will be astonished.

Meantime, back in Downing Street, the word came forth that steps are to be taken in England. These include an industry-led centre to improve efficiency in the food chain, an action plan to combat illegal meat imports and funding to promote some schemes.

What was not announced was whether modulation will be increased - the switching of production subsidies to rural development.

More modulation - at least 10 per cent and possibly up to 20 per cent - was a key recommendation of Sir Don Curry's policy group report, one which led to him joining the Prime Minister on Walker's "you're wrong" list. Gobbledygook and cloud-cuckoo land were also mentioned.

Yesterday, the government insisted that modulation was never going to be an early change. But it will be considered this autumn.

The Prime Minister, at least showing consistency with the Beckett line of recent months, told the meeting that the European Union's common agricultural policy would disappear in its present form.

Again, like Beckett, Blair didn't mention that the timing will depend on the views of 15 EU member states, not Britain alone. What he did say was: "The issue is how we finance change within agriculture, it's about what we believe we can and should be producing for the future, how we get a policy which is suitably integrated."

He added: "There is no doubt at all that some time in the future the CAP will cease to exist in its present form - when, is the question.

"With 10 new countries almost certainly coming into the EU in 2004, there is no way this is sustainable financially in the long term."

After the meeting, Ben Gill, president of the NFU of England and Wales, said he was encouraged but farmers now needed delivery, not talk, with farming profitability the key.

He said: "Without profitability, there's no ability to go forward on any of the environmental or animal welfare issues or the rural economy."

Although the meeting might have laid the foundations for farmers to work more closely together as they did in continental Europe and achieve greater strength in the market - there speaks an optimist - Gill said that reform of CAP would take a very long time indeed, adding: "We can't have reform that just drops farmers and farming communities in it. My members have had for far too long a period of good words. We need delivery."

At last - something on which Walker and Gill can agree.

Beckett contended that "a lot of progress" had been made and there was a great deal of common ground and agreement and a strategy was being put together for the autumn.

Curry said he would not be satisfied until all the recommendations in his group's report had been acted on.

"One recommendation is dependent on another and we cannot re-focus the industry unless the report is adopted in total," he said. "In discussions with DEFRA, I have been working on a list of recommendations which I believe could be adopted very quickly and the vast majority of recommendations on my list have been endorsed today."

Fordyce Maxwell
Wednesday, 27th March 2002
The Scotsman