CAP 2013 – The state of British agriculture
In the latest in a series of exclusive articles for Endeavour Public Affairs about the rural economy and the 2013 reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, Stuart Agnew MEP sets out his views on the state of British agriculture.
Stuart Agnew is a UKIP MEP representing the East of England. He is a member of the National Farmers Union and served as their Norfolk County Chairman in 1998. He is a member of the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. He farms in Norfolk (free range eggs, sheep, and 400 acres of arable land).
Looking at the present situation in British agriculture, one factor stands out above all the others and that is the grain price. For many years one of the raison d’etres of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was to protect farmers from the competition of very low priced grain. In three of the last six years we have witnessed historic ‘highs’ in the grain trade and the message should be getting through that it is becoming a little more difficult to feed the ever growing world population.
This message has not yet hit home with the European Commission, which drives the CAP reform and who are still convinced that if farmers want to benefit from the Single Farm Payment they must ensure that seven per cent of their overall farm area is not in food production.
Recently, I have heard of a couple of dilutions of this being suggested: 1) spring crops will be allowed, if following an over-wintered stubble. On very heavy soils this is taking a big gamble on just how great a reduction in the yield there will be. I would consider ploughing these soils in the spring to be highly risky, and direct drilling must be seriously considered. 2) There is talk of allowing protein crops to be grown on this ‘green land’, but my strong feeling is that the WTO might mount a challenge on the basis that a subsidy is being coupled to a commodity.
Is it really surprising that the whole reform process is going at a snail’s pace, when they are trying to satisfy the agricultural aspirations of countries whose mechanisation ranges from 550 horse power tractors in Western Europe to draft oxen in Cyprus, or where fertiliser application techniques range from satellite controlled precision spreaders to hand broadcasting from a bucket? I am not encouraged by the fact that the rotating EU presidencies over the next twelve months are with Ireland and Greece respectively. Neither of these countries is familiar with large scale intensive arable agriculture, yet their agriculture ministers will exert great influence over the reform process.
The grain price is having a massive impact on the survivability of the intensive livestock sector. Such is the power of the retailers to refuse realistic requests for price increases, that we witnessed the genuine desperation of dairy farmers last summer in public protests against not just a price standstill, but a price cut. It was heartening to see the media support the farmers and shame certain retailers into an about-turn. I believe the only way for pig and poultry producers to receive higher prices, is to reduce production across the board, without leaving themselves open to accusations of collusion.
The EU is now proposing that the acres (yes acres) of white asbestos sheets that clad tens of thousands of UK farm buildings must be removed as a ‘hazardous waste’ with all the expense that that, implies. White asbestos cement sheets should never have been lumped together with blue and brown asbestos. Even when they break, there is no visible dust given off. If these are defined as hazardous, why are we allowed to set fire to anything at all on November 5th? You never know, you might inhale wood smoke, and I might have given the EU another idea! I recently had quotes varying from £7,500 to £18,000 to remove a small amount of blue asbestos sound proofing, along with the roof sheets, from a fan house. All of this could be carried in a small skip. Then, of course, there is the small matter of replacing these roofing sheets with another material!
Badgers and TB are, however, not an EU issue. The British public appears to tolerate the culling of foxes, deer, rabbits and pigeons but not badgers. Why are badgers so special? This attitude is costly to the taxpayer, devastating to farming families and thoroughly unpleasant for badgers, who suffer greatly if they contract this disease. The latest delay is for the interesting reason that there are many more badgers than previously thought. To me this speaks volumes.