Parliament in Perspective 16th January 2015

A multi-coloured political showing at the Oxford Farming Conference marked the zenith of last week’s political activity, with rural affairs notably absent from parliamentary business. Only weeks before the General Election, a stalemate is emerging in the corridors of power as the struggle between party leaders to articulate their policies trickles down into farm politics. And, of course, anything flagged up now could lie in ashes a few weeks hence as the post-election arena remains alarmingly wide open.

Stepping onto the Oxford podium, in the choppy wake left by DEFRA Secretary of State Liz Truss and most of her counterparts, environmental campaigner George Monbiot had only to be his usual entertaining eccentric self to dupe delegates into rounds of applause as he called yet again for an end to farm subsidies. It’s downright wrong, he proclaimed, that in an age of austerity, that so much money is being spent on farm support, with the biggest landowners still receiving millions in payments. The idea that food production would fall without subsidies was questionable, he argued – productive farmers should not need subsidies. And those who do need them, usually on marginal land, hardly produced any food anyway.

Cheerfully emitting derogatory adjectives like shots from a 12-bore, he called for subsidies to be targeted at those who needed them, and only for “public goods rather than public harm”.

Ms Truss called for “a better deal” from Brussels that would allow UK farmers to compete effectively with their EU counterparts and ignite her limply expressed hopes for UK agriculture to become a “world leading powerhouse”. She said she was “pressing Brussels” for less bureaucracy, and to allow access to new technology and products – including GM and “tools” to improve crop disease resilience. Leaving the EU is nothing but a “hypothetical question”, she said.

UKIP agriculture spokesman Stuart Agnew called for modified Single Farm Payments, giving £80/acre to lowland farmers, capped at £120,000 per holding or 1,500 acres, if the UK left the EU.

Shadow farm minister Huw Irranca-Davies shared a vision of a “leaner, meaner and greener” CAP (Mr Monbiot would have no complaints there) and criticised the Government for its “anti-EU” rhetoric. By turning on Europe, UK farmers would simply be ceding support to other Member States, he said.

And what of Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge for a referendum? Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead dubbed it a “£20 billion gamble with the future of Scottish and British farming”. Leaving the EU would mean leaving the CAP, Lochhead said. For Scottish farmers at least, 85% of whom farm in Less Favoured Areas, it would mean “opting out of farming”.

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