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Give our farmers a level playing field

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The farmer will never be happy again.
He carries his heart in his boots,
For either the rain is destroying his grain
Or the drought is destroying his roots.’ – 
A P Herbert

TO THE uncertainties of the seasons, British agriculture must add the unresolved uncertainties of Brexit at very short notice – and farming is a business with long-term production cycles. The Internal Market Bill, which has caused such controversy in its international aspect, was a late response to a long-established problem which seems to have been overlooked until very recently.

An internal ‘level playing field’ for agriculture in the UK?

‘Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have wide discretion on Common Agricultural Policy matters and are treated almost as separate EU countries for the purpose. So farmers in one part of the UK could be in competition with farmers in another part who are receiving subsidy whilst they receive none . . . It has been one part of the achievements of this policy to create unfair situations, setting people in one part of the UK against each other.’ From a paper by the Campaign for an Independent Britain of 2013!

Although this paper has been passed on to MPs, ministers and others over the years, it appears to have come as something of a surprise to the government that each devolved part of the UK could follow farm policies which would create a far from ‘level playing field’ within our own country. Resolving this is an entirely UK internal matter which could and should have been settled three years ago when, the government first announced that we would be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet only now is it being dealt with.

A level playing field for British agriculture in free trade agreements?

British agriculture works to high standards of livestock husbandry, animal welfare and control of chemical additives for stock and crops which, by and large, enjoy strong public support. Brexiteers with long memories will remember that doughty independence campaigner, Sir Richard Body, who was also a farmer with a great humane interest in animal welfare. He introduced a Bill to abolish restrictive narrow pens and tethering for sows. Public support for the Bill was enormous. The government took up the Bill and it became law. So pig farmers had to spend considerable amounts of money on new housing to stay in business, but the market was depressed and many could not afford it. Much of what had been British pig production simply moved to EU countries which did not have this higher standard. Being in a free trade relationship with the EU, there was no way in which the government could prevent this pig meat entering the UK.

Many British pig farmers went out of business in spite of the lead time which the government allowed them for compliance. As Lady Trumpington said in a debate in the House of Lords in 1991:  ‘Consumers of course would of course still want pig meat and the shortfall would have to come from abroad – from the very systems that we would have banned here.’ 

The government will need to be very careful that it does not create situations of this sort in any agricultural free trade agreements with other countries, particularly the United States, with British farmers, compelled by law to observe certain high standards, put in competition with importers who do not have that expense or whole system of control. It is very much more than a matter of unwarranted hysterics over ‘chlorinated chicken’.

Not total self-sufficiency but a vigorous encouragement of home production

From the Agriculture Act of 1947 onwards, it was recognised that Britain needed to import food but could not simply rely on the world market for its nourishment. Neither could British agriculture compete on price with the countries of the world which enjoyed more favourable climatic conditions. Indeed food security was one of the reasons which the government gave for joining the EEC in 1973. Mrs Thatcher agreed at the time!

Under the 1947 Act foreign foods were imported here without customs tariffs (at far less than EU prices) and home production was encouraged by subsidy to promote food security. In an increasingly highly populated world, a policy with similar effect makes ever greater sense today.

A last-minute, partial reassurance

Following a public petition of a million signatures and little-reported demonstrations by farming organisations, DEFRA Secretary George Eustice and International Trade Secretary Elizabeth Truss announced at the weekendthat the Trade & Agriculture Commission which scrutinises trade agreements will be placed on a full statutory footing and not, as previously planned, on a temporary, purely advisory basis. The National Farmers’ Union welcomed this but other campaign groups felt that MPs should have a final say on matters relating to food standards in trade deals.

Farmers must feel uneasy that this concession came so late and know that some free trade fanatics in high places actually do want to return to the policy which Britain followed before the First World War, when British farming was so run down that a member of the Board of Agriculture could say ‘British Agriculture is dead and it is our job to provide a decent funeral’. With all the resources of Empire and the largest battle fleet and merchant navy in the world, as well as the Bank of England with plenty of gold sovereigns, why bother growing our own food? Rudyard Kipling foresaw the risk of that arrogance in a poem:

The Big Steamers

Send out your big warships to watch your big waters
That no-one may stop us from bringing you food,
For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by all us Big Steamers
And if anyone hinders our coming you starve.

Today with our much reduced fleet and financial resources the reckless danger of such a policy is even greater.

We have to be more self reliant now and look out for ourselves. I am sure our farmers are keen to play their part. But they do really need the government to tell them plainly the rules within which they will be required to work.

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Edward Spalton
Edward Spalton is chairman of the cross-party Campaign for an Independent Britain.

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