A new contract for farming

Posted on: 18th May 2011

Originally posted on 30/04/03


If we left our rural areas without any form of intervention – financial or regulatory – it would not be long before much of the British countryside was turned over to the vast and sanitised ranch and prairie land of large agribusiness holdings and our villages into an exclusive preserve of fortress retreats for the better off.

The challenge to legislators is not whether we should intervene but by how much.

The underlying economic reality which has challenged successive Governments for the last two hundred and fifty years at least is the simple fact that people spend a decreasing proportion of their income on food as, over time, their living standards and economic prospects improve. In order for farmers to share in the general increase in living standards they have to produce more food (otherwise they would become a peasant underclass!).

Therefore farms have to become larger and small farmers are inevitably forced from the countryside. Records of debates about agriculture and the rural economy for the past couple of centuries are often dominated by those who bemoan this trend and who refer wistfully to a lost Golden Age – a time usually twenty or thirty years before.

Perhaps sadly the various rural romantic movements, back-to-the-landers and others have ultimately been steamrollered into submission by these fundamental economic realities.

The reported comments of the Prime Minister’s “Rural Recovery” Tsar – Lord Haskins – that “Farms will get bigger and that is a good thing” could be seen as merely a continuation of the same trend and a recognition of that inescapable reality.

But I am no longer convinced that that is true.

The requirements of both the World Trade Organisation and the challenges of the eastward expansion of the EU, but, above all, the overwhelming need for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) means that farmers face an accelerated timetable to lose their production supports.

A reformed CAP would provide ‘decoupled’ payments to farmers based on a proxy for their historic subsidies.

This is where the Liberal Democrats have consistently argued that farmers should not simply receive payments “for being farmers” but be paid in recognition of the ‘public goods’ they provide.

The pursuit of a competitive British farming industry which could survive, subsidy-free, in the ‘cold winds’ of world markets would involve the sacrifice of the British countryside. It would mean scrubbing hedgerows, draining wetlands and ponds, refusing public access to rights of way, destroying historic features and scheduled monuments, showing no respect for vernacular and local traditions, sanitising the biodiversity of the countryside and breaking many of the remaining links between farming and its rural community. We must therefore recognise that we, as a society, in fact have a far reaching interest in what happens to and on the factory floor of our food producers and that, it is for these very public outcomes we should pay our farmers.

In my own constituency in West Cornwall and Scilly many of the field boundaries are scheduled monuments, the intricate network of footpaths and stiles are a primary source of recreation, planning controls quite rightly restrict what farmers can do to their buildings and the maintenance of diversity of wildlife depends to a large extent upon the actions of farmers.

We cannot ask them to compete on the world market with farmers who have absolutely no restrictions or regulation at the same time as requiring them to absolutely respect the restrictions we place on them. Therefore decoupled payments cannot arrive without a contract of “strings attached” which recognise society’s wish to have these desired public outcomes.

Driving forward reform which maintains rural traditions, a scale and style of farming and a family farm structure which is integrated into the rural community is something we should aim for because that is what the public want.

But we cannot prop up our farmers and rural communities irrespective of the cost? And that is why a further intervention is now necessary to redress the imbalance in commercial power between thousands of independent primary food producers and a small number of large supermarket chains and food processors who have effective monopolistic power to dictate price and conditions.

The Sir Don Curry “Food and Farming” Commission proposals published last year represent a welcome collection of policy proposals to make farming more profitable but they look like remaining statements of hope rather than Government action and ambition.

News that a post-war record 15,000 farmers and workers left the industry last year may be a cause for celebration for some but for those of us who recognise that we’re at a watershed of the future of farming this represents a challenge to see whether we can maintain the structure of agriculture, successfully challenge the monopoly of the supermarkets and guarantee a stable base for the maintenance of a balanced, accessible and successful future for our rural communities.

I was born and brought up on a farm in my constituency. I know that farmers want clear signals. The majority see themselves as food producers. I am not suggesting that they all retrain as countryside managers, but they have to recognise that, if British farming is to survive, they need to enter into a contract with society which enables them to carry on doing what the majority have done for centuries anyway and that is to respect their own environment and traditions.

Andrew George MP 30th April 2003