Leading Article: Farmers may be happier, but they're not out of the woods

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The Independent Culture
WELL, THAT'S the farmers sorted - or so it may seem from Downing Street. The generous pounds 150m aid package announced by the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, on Monday night has clearly drawn the sting from the anti- Government protest that had been building all summer in the farming world, and which was due to come to a most inconvenient head in a mass demonstration outside the Labour Party conference hall in Bournemouth on Monday afternoon.

Not any more. A deal has been done and the demo is off. The threat of a political alliance between angry farmers and angry country sports enthusiasts, and of two successive days of raised rural voices - the fox-hunters demonstrate on Tuesday - has enabled the Government to see, with miraculous suddenness, the suffering farmers' point of view. Never mind what we said last month, Nick. Give 'em the money. When the Treasury is running a pounds 12bn budget surplus, the odd pounds 150m is a price that can easily be paid to keep control of the political agenda in the week of the Labour Party's annual seaside jamboree. Realpolitik, it's called.

That said, this week's bail-out is well targeted, and very welcome, with renewed help for sheep farmers in the hills and the waiving of much- resented slaughterhouse inspection and "cattle passport" charges. Mr Brown is also pressing to remove the last great damaging legacy of the BSE crisis, the ban on the sale of beef on the bone. His officials advise him that it can be done now, but he is waiting for approval from his colleagues in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. That may be the price you pay for devolution, but those colleagues should get on with it. Mr Brown is right not to go it alone, and to wait until the ban can be lifted on a UK-wide basis - it is the reputation of British beef as a whole that is at stake - but it cannot come soon enough.

It would be wrong, however, to think that once the ban goes, and incomes recover and agriculture perhaps drops out of the headlines, its troubles are over. What this crisis has shown, above all, is that British farming cannot stand up to the global market without major restructuring: there will have to be fewer and bigger farms, with a globally competitive cost base. The social and indeed environmental implications of this will have to be worked out, but it is coming. Whatever the Government's short-term success in keeping Britain's farmers sweet, sorted they are not.