SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

by Pat Bird
Dairy Farmer

Last week's report on the future of British Agriculture from Sir Don Curry, welcomed by the organic devotees but vigorously opposed by Sean Ricard of the Cranfield School of Management completely misses the point. 'Sustainable' means to keep alive. But to keep British Agriculture alive, it must be able to sell its products both on the export market and its own supermarket shelves. And therein lies the problem. The financial health of British farming is determined by two factors. The level of state funding it receives compared with the level enjoyed by its competitors, or the level of red tape and bureaucracy it has to support, again compared with those with whom it must compete.

If other country's farming industries enjoy substantially higher levels of subsidy than their own, then British farmers will have difficulty competing in export markets. And as the EU dictates 'open trade borders' between her member states then Britain's domestic market is threatened as well. This is the situation British farmers face. Her immediate neighbours, France and Ireland are paid substantially more in EU subsidies and are gaining market share on the back of this. Describing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a "trough in which some pigs are more equal than others", Dr. Richard North, research director in the EU, points out that the UK has a struggle to compete with most of her EU 'partners'.

France leads the field of agri-investment with a commitment of £1.2 billion per year, equating to 17.5% of the EU budget and helped 11,952 young farmers fund their businesses from 1990 -97. In comparison, Britain will draw down only 3.5% of the Rural Development fund and offered assistance to just 27 new entrants. Much of the problem is that the various schemes taken up by our competitors require matched funding from national governments. But for the UK farmers, that option was negotiated away in the 1984 Fontainbleau agreement by Mrs. Thatcher as part of the politically sacrosanct budget rebate, and the UK government would have to directly fund up to 90% of the projects. To restore that elusive level playing field in both domestic and export markets, British farmers need parity of funding which Dr. North estimates at almost £3.5 billion per year.

The Soil Association, and government's enthusiasm for all things organic, ignores the oversupply in this country of milk in particular, only half of which now attracts the organic premium. And the amount of consumers prepared to pay a premium for what has been described by one farmer as "A jersey-cross calf fattened on weeds", is also limited.

EU environmental schemes, historically gold plated by UK governments as a sop to the conservation lobby, also combine to reduce the ability of British farmers to compete. 'Sustainable' agriculture seems to mean all things to all men and the RSPB are reported to be supporting the initiative of subsidy free UK agriculture. But are there more bird habitats in areas of the world operating under world market conditions? Have they even looked?

Similarly, Mr. Ricard's criticism of subsidies and support for world market prices ignores the costs that British farmers are expected to support. Not for them the scale, and dubious benefit of 100,000 head beef lots, aerial sprayed with insecticides, the cattle described by horrified UK visitors as undergoing ovariectomy and castration without anaesthetics, in 'tandem crushes', and then injected with hormones to provide a uniform carcass. All are banned in the UK. Compare the scale and pollution problems of the 3000 cow dairies of California, contract milked by Mexican labour, and pumped with rBST to sustain a 3 year lactation after just one calf, with the current UK proposal to monitor and record every kilogram of nitrogen a cow drops in a given field.

After drug residues of banned drugs were found during an inspection mission, the EU Standing Veterinary Committee voted to suspend imports of animal origin from China this week Chinese pork, rabbit and chicken is on UK supermarket shelves - often flying a Union Jack as being 'packaged in the UK'. And Britain was instrumental in getting Chinese access to these EU markets, via trade from Hong Kong. How do British farmers compete with that?

New Zealand has no direct subsidies, but British visitors report that its love affair with grassland regularly leaves cows standing on an 'all weather pad' (that's Antipodean for concrete) - for as long as it rains. Most UK welfare contracts specify a roof and straw for those conditions. Reported in the Grocer magazine, supermarket buyers were complaining of carcass contamination from fallen stock on NZ grassland. But their concern was limited to the affect on lamb quality and taste. With this government's support for the British public's 'right to roam', could we compete using those methods? Would we want to?

The traceability and welfare schemes that Britain has initiated, the numerous inspectors that UK agriculture supports, and the conservation groups who influence and monitor its activities, far from being a selling point on export markets, has baffled the Americans. From their standpoint of world market prices, using whatever methods scientists dream up to produce food cheaply and sell it high, they question the viability of farms 'small enough to allow the individual treatment of animals'.
One trade negotiator commented "that's not farming it's gardening".