Beckett backs food imports

Source: FWi 22 July 2002

By Johann Tasker

MARGARET Beckett is set to back calls for global trade restrictions to be relaxed, in a move that could see food imports worth billions of pounds flood into Britain.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs secretary outlined her vision at the recent Labour Party's rural conference at Harper Adams University College.

A World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next month will be a sharp reminder of the fight to bring the fruits of globalisation to the world's poor, she said.

Recent figures show that the developed world spends #233bn subsidising its own agriculture and a further #33bn in direct aid to developing countries, she said.

But World Bank economists believe that opening markets to farm produce from developing countries could be worth #100bn to them - three times as much as direct aid.

Mrs Beckett said: "In our fight for reform in the EU we are playing for very high stakes.

"Not just for a new settlement for Britain's farming and a new background to our rural economy, but something which could in time transform the lives of the most vulnerable people on our planet."

Mrs Beckett welcomed Curry commission recommendations that farming must reconnect with customers and said these were best achieved through overhauling the Common Agricultural policy.

Consumers, taxpayers and farmers are all dissatisfied with the CAP which swallows almost half of the EU budget, she added.

"Reform of the CAP is a long-standing aim of this government.

"We made some progress in Agenda 2000 and we are fighting to build on them in the current mid-term review, in order to ensure a more sustainable agriculture.

"There could not be a more important time for this debate."

Delegates were also addressed by Lord Haskins, the government's former rural recovery coordinator

He said that many British farmers were still "digging for victory", believing that national security was at risk unless the country was self-sufficient in food.

"They need to be told that the war is 60 years over," the Labour peer said.

Referring to recent comments by Prince Charles who called for Britain to produce more food, Lord Haskins continued: "People in the countryside spend a lot of time looking backwards rather than forwards.

"The heir to the throne is a prime example of that, believing we should live in a feudal society where we should all pay more for our food."

The Labour Party has about 180 MPs in what it terms rural or semi-rural constituencies.

The conference - its first on rural issues - was designed to overcome accusations that the party is more concerned about urban voters than people in the countryside.

About 150 hunt supporters jeered delegates arriving at the conference centre.