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It’s All About Image
2:11pm Friday 4th February 2011 in Land & Business
Farmer bashing became popular again recently as reports in many national newspapers went down the rather weary route of examining the subsidies paid to farmers to produce food mountains.
One broadsheet environment correspondent even talked about butter lakes – well I don’t know what she puts on her toast in the morning but I don’t think I’d enjoy it.
The latest outbreak of farmer bashing followed Caroline Spellman’s speech at the Oxford Farming Conference on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy.
I don’t know where all this began to go wrong but it wasn’t very long ago that farmers enjoyed a huge amount of respect because they produce the food we eat, care for the landscape we enjoy and manage the rural environment. Along the way they also provide employment and – although admittedly a diminishing amount – rural housing.
Many of the reports of this most prestigious of farming conferences couldn’t resist the temptation to talk about the amount of EU money distributed to UK farmers. Neither could they stop themselves salivating over the statistics of 42 per cent of the EU budget which goes into the Common Agricultural Policy. Actually the total EU spend on agricultural support is just 0.4 percent of its gross income – some might consider that a reasonable proportion to spend on food production and environmental management.
But perhaps that lack of understanding is the point where the image began to go wrong, where farmers began to lose their post-war popularity as pillars of society – because the man (and woman) in the street might well be forgiven for asking why, in the current economic climate, are we looking for public support for farmers.
But I think that’s where the reporting has got slightly out of kilter – because it is seeking to shape public opinion rather than inform it – to make the news rather than report it.
The reality is that there are few truly common policies within the EU and the CAP is the most significant so, clearly, it is going to pick up a large percentage of the budget.
Slating it as the biggest agricultural aid program in the world is not going to help public understanding because what the CAP does – and may well do better in the future – is to pick up the cost of the goods which farmers provide but which the market doesn’t pay for.
There are few farmers who would disagree with the argument that subsidising food production does distort the market but that isn’t the real issue for the future. Mrs Spelman spoke about the need to recognise the economic imperative of environmental sustainability – and she’s right to do so.
If we want to care for our environment then we need to keep grazing animals in the vast majority of it and where that is not economically viable in pure market terms – i.e. where the market price doesn’t match the production cost – then the CAP payments are what makes the difference.
That’s why the CLA has been putting forward the argument that the CAP needs to support food and environmental security.
The moor lands and the heath – even the chalk down land - cannot be maintained by mechanical toppers alone it needs the input of grazing animals that is where we believe the true benefit of CAP support can be seen.
What Mrs Spelman actually said at Oxford was that she believed the market (or super market) should pick up more of the real cost of food production but that support for land managers should be better directed at the provision of public goods.Those public goods manifest themselves as landscape, environment, habitat and biodiversity and carry with them the rural idyll so vital to our tourist industry.
Again, the fact is that the cost of our food has been distorted – not simply by EU subsidies but by supermarkets paying too low a price in order to corner their share of the market it’s a big ask if the real cost of food should include the total production cost plus the cost of some environmental management and the failure to manage supermarket purchasing policy has been all too evident..
The other side of this coin is the image of farmers and land managers as despoilers of the countryside. Asset stripping the land is not a good recipe for keeping the family farm or estate in good working heart – which is the key to all successful farming - so that’s hardly a fair accusation.
Paul Millard, Editor