WEDNESDAY AUGUST 08 2001

The politics of farm subsidies

FROM MR TOM ALLEN-STEVENS

Sir, Michael Gove's well-argued article "Are farmers their own worst enemy?" (Times 2, August 2) helped to explain the friction between town and country. But I cannot agree with his conclusion that it is farmers' willingness to rely on subsidies that has been responsible for both the hardships and the urban scorn they face.

Farming subsidies were introduced after the Second World War, as part of a carrot-and-stick campaign to increase production and allow the country to become self-sufficient. Fed up with food rationing, as a nation we welcomed any move to reduce our reliance on food imports which made us vulnerable if supplies were cut off.

It was remarkably successful, although responsible for driving many less efficient farm businesses off the land. The policy continued in the guise of the common agricultural policy, this time with slightly more carrot and less stick. The result was the huge and well-documented surpluses of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The trouble with these policies is that they make us complacent: we never have to worry where our food will come from, and forget what a fine line there is between surplus and starvation. In the early 1990s the northern hemisphere suffered four years of below-average harvests. The grain mountains disappeared and world wheat prices in early 1996 doubled as importing countries began to feel uneasy. Fortunately the 1996 and subsequent harvests were bumper crops, which put things back on an even keel.

Politicians have also learnt that food can be a big bargaining chip. It is credited with being the tool with which the US beat a starving Russia into submission over the arms race, ending the Cold War.

So it is politicians, not farmers, who are hanging on to subsidies. They have been reluctant to scrap the policies which, although expensive, have given Europe and North America a political smugness few other continents enjoy.

The forward-thinking, more successful farmers I know would readily scrap the restrictions and red tape of the current subsidy system. But they can only sit by helplessly and hope that the Government - the same one that has so spectacularly failed to deal with the foot-and-mouth disaster - can effect a speedy and worthwhile modernisation.

Yours faithfully,

TOM ALLEN-STEVENS

(Farmer and Arable Editor, Farmers Weekly Interactive),

Wicklesham Lodge Farm, Faringdon, Oxfordshire SN7 7PN. August 6