A shake-up for a healthier industry

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The Independent Online
We need a fresh start. Instead of the vast array of agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy, we need a single scheme of incentives encouraging ethical and organic farming.

Those farmers who wished to go it alone by foregoing state support and living from the market would be at liberty to do so - but within the limitations of more civilised environmental and health and safety standards (which would prohibit cannibalism in animals, for example).

A balance between livestock and arable production would be restored, giving a more varied landscape and rebuilding natural fertility with animal wastes. More diverse farming systems reduce the need for chemical use, as natural pest and disease controls - such as more balanced plant and animal nutrition, and predators of damaging insects - have a chance to reassert themselves.

There would be additional payments for management of the features which make British rural landscapes so beautiful - the hedges, ditches, stone walls, ponds and copses. And if the farm were managed to the standards of one of the food certification schemes - the RSPCA's Freedom Foods, or the organic label - farm income could be topped up by the premium with which the market currently rewards these systems.

Even under such a benign system, it would still be necessary to reorder the two functions that are so unsuccessfully combined within MAFF: defending the consumer, and promoting the farming industry.

MAFF should be renamed the Ministry of Food and Farming, reflecting the relative reordering of priorities. Consumer protection should then be floated off into its own independent division within the MFF. Such a Food Standards Agency should be analogous to other regulatory agencies established recently both here and overseas: the National Rivers Authority could be a domestic model, with the food authorities in Australia, Norway and the US providing overseas models. If given the necessary powers, a clear regulatory function and its own champion at Minister of State level, it could stand up to the producer-orientation in MAFF and restore public confidence in British food.

The challenge for the new Minister of Food and Farming would be open up to the mass of consumers the chance to buy at least some organic or specialist foods. If the policy framework is right, that's not such a tall order. But just now it looks well beyond the reach of the hapless Mr Hogg.