Wanted: A vision for two-thirds of the UK and the chance for David Cameron to polish his tarnished green credentials

The PM has a chance to revitalise the countryside - but his recent record suggests he has other priorities

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In television studios the most interesting conversations often happen away from the cameras in the green room. That was where, some time ago, I met a dairy farmer from Devon called Richard Gibson. He had just returned from a trip to Kenya for a BBC documentary which placed individuals in what it described as “the toughest place on Earth” in which to do the job they did ordinarily in Britain. He had spent a week with cattle-herders in the Masai Mara.

What had most surprised him – despite the 6,000-mile gap between his farm near Tiverton and the remote village of the Samburu tribe – were the striking similarities, as well as the contrasts, between the two worlds. In both places the relationship between people and the environment was crucial.

I thought of him again the other day when I heard that the British Government had launched a consultation on how it should spend the £2bn a year which is England’s share of the reformed Common Agricultural Policy. By European Union standards it is a paltry sum. The total CAP budget for the next six years has just been set at £340bn. That is 38 per cent of the total EU budget even though a mere 5 per cent of Europe’s population work on farms.

The CAP is not as bad as it once was in the profligate days of Europe’s butter mountains and wine lakes. But for six decades it has been the ultimate caricature of the law of unintended consequences. 

The CAP began in 1958, when the Continent was still emerging from a world war, with the aim of boosting food production and assuring farmers of a decent standard of living. But its system of fixed high prices ensured that Europe was soon producing far more than we could consume.  So we dumped the excess in the developing world. That drove poor farmers in Africa out of business. Maize grown a mile from markets in Africa became more expensive than wheat transported around the world from Europe. The suicide rate among farmers in India skyrocketed.

Over the years the EU has slowly and laboriously reformed the CAP. Europe’s politicians switched farm subsidies away from production and linked them to the amount of land a farmer held. But that just proved a subsidy for the rich. In 2004 the sugar refiner Tate & Lyle received a payment of €190m (£150m) through the CAP.

So the CAP has been in a state of perpetual technical reform. Subsidies were “de-coupled”. Milk quotas were abolished. Export subsidies were allegedly phased out. On and on the changes went. Which brings us to today.

Last week the European Parliament agreed a new CAP budget stretching from 2014 to 2020. Almost three-quarters of it is still market-distorting farm subsidy. But more than a quarter has been ear-marked for farmers whose activities benefit the environment. The 28-day public consultation which finishes this week is over how that should be spent.

This matters. Farmland covers 69 per cent of the English countryside. Changes in farming in the past half century have been so extensive that the countryside would be unrecognisable to our great-grandparents. Skylarks and cowslips may become the stuff of history. But how farming is conducted has a wider impact on the environment.

David Cameron has the chance to polish his tarnished green credentials. He needs to, and not just because of the Tory-press reports last week that he has ordered officials to “get rid of all the green crap” from energy bills to drive down soaring fuel prices. 

The Prime Minister who promised “the greenest government ever” has repeatedly fallen short on eco-policy. The Nature Check 2013 report recently found that the Government had failed in nine key green areas and was making good progress in just four. The Wildlife Trusts estimate 97 per cent of our wild-flower meadows have been lost in the past century. The State of Nature report published by 25 wildlife charities this summer revealed 60 per cent of native species it studied are in decline. One in 10 is threatened with extinction.

There is far more to this than a lament for a lost rural idyll. What happens in the countryside affects our drinking water, flood-risk management and even carbon storage. As repeated food scares showed – from BSE to the horsemeat scandal – how we farm affects what we eat and the nation’s health.

The Government has said it will honour its promise to move 15 per cent of CAP payments – the maximum allowed under EU rules – from farm subsidies into rewards for sound management of the environment. But it is intending to water down other environmental aspects of the reform. Some of the 15 per cent seems to be headed for less eco-friendly “farm competitiveness” and “rural development”. Nor are there plans to use the other 85 per cent of the budget to maximise “greening” by doing more to protect flower-rich grasslands or link wildlife corridors along field-edges and hedgerows where animals, bees and butterflies thrive.

A new round of reform for the CAP will be negotiated for 2020. It should go much further both on improving the environment and on reducing unfair competition with farmers in the poor world.

More joined-up thinking between the CAP and EU overseas development budgets is needed. Export subsidies, which damage the income of farmers in poor countries, should finally go. Farmers should be paid to reduce intensive use of chemicals and greenhouse gas emissions. The result would be better quality food, sustainable rural communities and protection for the English countryside. Then we may find that the interests of farmers like Richard Gibson and the poor herdsmen among whom he lived in Africa are closer than many suppose.

Paul Vallely is a senior fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester

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