The friend of farmers

Agriculture is important for Yorkshire & Humber. There are over 12,000 holdings, and nearly two thirds of them are small farms of less than 100 hectares (250 acres). Over a fifth are grazing in Less Favoured Areas/Areas of Natural Constraint.

Overall, farming has bucked the trend during the recession. According to the National Farmers Union, agriculture’s contribution to the economy has increased by a staggering 54% between 2007 and 2012 — not only food, but as a provider of raw materials for industry. Food and drink is now the UK’s fourth largest exporting sector — much of it, of course, to the rest of the EU. And all this has happened despite recent droughts and floods (admittedly not simultaneously!). But national trends mask local and regional variations, as any Yorkshire farmer will tell you.

Because of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), farmers are acutely aware not only of the significance of the EU but also of its procedures — including the fact that EU agricultural legislation now requires approval by MEPs in the European Parliament (it used not to). So who sits in the Parliament — and whether they do their job properly — really matters for farmers.

It has long been a commonplace in Britain that the CAP needs reform. In fact, several reforms have actually taken place — noticed by farmers, of course, but often unnoticed among the wider public. It used to account for 70% of all EU spending, but it’s due to fall to just 27% by the end of this decade. There used to be butter mountains and wine lakes, but they have gone. There used to be unjustified export subsidies for dumping our surpluses on third world countries, but they are also on the way out. And aid to farmers has switched from subsidising production to supporting public goods like environmental protection.

These improvements don’t mean that the CAP is without its problems. But public perceptions, including the perceptions of most politicians, are lagging behind reality. Today’s problems are new ones, or old ones in different circumstances, and they are augmented by difficulties not directly connected to agriculture.

One problem is that the most recent CAP reforms have been untidily done, leaving the way open to uneven application between Member States. For instance, different choices made by our own government and the French government mean that French farmers now get greater direct subsidies than British ones. Supporters of ‘subsidiarity’ should sometimes be careful of what they wish for! To talk jargon for a moment, leaving wide discretion to each country to reallocate funds between pillar 1 and pillar 2 risks undermining the level playing field in the European market.

Another problem is that the UK, unlike many other EU countries, has no long-term strategy for farming. The current coalition government failed to take forward the Food 2030 strategy that was developed by Hilary Benn when he was the responsible minister in the Labour government.

And then there is, of course, the fraught relationship between farmers and supermarkets, which has flared up again recently. It’s not only about prices, but also about the small print of contracts: cancellation clauses, delivery conditions, late revisions and so on — these often give the farmer a raw deal. Progress has been made on this, not least under the Labour government with the new Groceries Code, now complemented by an adjudicator, a success that could be usefully extended across other EU countries. Fairness in supply chains across the whole of Europe would allow UK farmers and food companies to grow their businesses and export directly to supermarkets in other countries with a similar level of protection to the protection they enjoy in the UK.

The CAP is vital for our farmers’ livelihoods, but it’s not just the only reason that the EU is important for the farming industry. There are also the common rules for the common market on consumer protection (such as traceability in the food chain, highlighted by the horsemeat scandal); European R&D programmes developing new strains and techniques; European decisions on genetically-modified organisms; EU trade agreements with countries all over the world; rules on animal health & welfare; climate change strategy — and much else besides.

That’s why it’s important for our farmers to have a strong voice in Brussels. Not the absenteeism of UKIP MEPs, nor the half-hearted engagement of the Conservatives.

The NFU has its own office in Brussels, doing excellent work, well-informed and well-connected. But it needs politicians to stand up in the European Parliament, to engage with ministers, to question the Commission, and to amend, approve or reject legislation. And it needs MEPs who are willing to spend the time and make the effort to understand the ins and outs of the issues and challenges the faced by farmers.

Labour has not always been seen as the friend of farmers, perhaps more for historical reasons. But in modern circumstances, and especially in the European Parliament, many farmers will know that if they want a serious and effective approach to the issues that particularly concern them, then Labour is their best friend.

UPDATE: The classifieds website Farm Machinery Locator has created an interesting webpage which tracks the performance of UK farming in realtime, counting (for instance) how many eggs have been laid and how many kilograms of manure produced. Take a look!
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