Farmers should face up to "market forces" if they are to survive the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, warned yesterday.
She told them that the time had come to stop relying on subsidies and to become more responsive to customers' needs.
Mrs Beckett – whose message comes at a time when hopes are rising that the outbreak is drawing to a close – told the Labour conference: "There is no long-term future for an industry which cannot develop in line with market forces, no matter what the industry, its history or the wider contribution it makes to its society.
"And there isn't even a rosy short-term future for an industry if it becomes completely out of tune with those on whom it depends for its markets, its custom and consequently its prospects for survival."
Mrs Beckett, who is seen as less sympathetic to farmers than her predecessor, Nick Brown, said: "Society as a whole is changing, and probably changing irrevocably. Not least among the changes that agriculture itself needs to make is to recognise that it must become more market-oriented and customer-focused."
She said the industry had to resist the "siren voices" that change should be delayed for "another year, or five years, or 10 years, or another generation" because of the problems it would cause. She said: "The world will not wait."
Mrs Beckett said the European Union was committed to reforming the much-criticised Common Agricultural Policy: "The wider European public will, I believe, no longer permit farming simply to carry on as before – let alone pay for it – whether through taxation or through high consumer prices."
An independent policy commission set up by the Government to examine the future of farming had been told to produce sweeping recommendations for change, she said. "The focus must be on sustainable agriculture. The status quo is simply not sustainable."
She said the Government was making progress towards achieving the environmental targets it had set. "Although there's still a long way to go, this year we have the cleanest air, water and beaches since the industrial revolution," she said.
Councils were also drawing up plans to tackle problems such as abandoned cars, litter, poor housing and vandalism.
She said that the focus of next year's world summit in Johannesburg on sustainable development would be on the way "dire poverty damages the community and the environment, as well as the individual". Mrs Beckett added: "The pursuit of sustainable development is not a luxury for the rich few. It is a necessity for all, though most of all for the poor.
"For all the years of our party's existence, the focus of many conference debates has been the need to fight poverty in order to liberate the human spirit. Today we recognise that that fight is not just for others, it is for ourselves. It is for the whole human race and the planet which is our common home."Reuse content