Earlier this week, I did what I rarely do, and trotted off to a stuffy conference hall to listen to a government minister give a speech. I was keen to see Margaret Beckett's first appearance on a public stage since she was appointed to head the new mouthful of a ministry, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Here, in Margaret Beckett, we have a competent minister, I thought to myself. Here, in Britain in 2001, we have an environment and a farming industry in crisis. Here, at this conference organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the challenge will be seized.
How wrong could I be? Her speech proved so dull that, even though I tried to keep myself awake by drawing flowers and birds all over my conference timetable, I found myself constantly having to jolt my mind out of unbidden reveries. (Why do female ministers always get called by their first names, while men get called minister? When Marks and Spencer goes bust, where will female politicians find those scarlet suits with long jackets that nobody else stocks?) I also found that I had to call up the ministry later, and get a copy of her speech e-mailed to me.
It wasn't just the eye-wateringly dull oratory that made it so unmemorable. It was the lack of a single concrete proposal. There was nothing to grasp. Why should this be? Forgive me if I'm missing something, but I was under the impression that farming in Britain was in a bit of a state. There are the poor farmers, who now earn, on average, £8,500 a year; there are the poor shoppers, who are looking for organic produce at prices they can afford; and there is the poor environment, facing the disappearance of butterflies, birds and flowers that we used to take for granted in Britain. So grasp that nettle, Ms Beckett!
And if it's an organic nettle, so much the better. It's a long-standing absurdity that Britain has to import 75 per cent of its organic produce, and that, despite consumer demand, only 2 per cent of its land is organically farmed. Well, organic farming did get a mention, though I nearly missed it. This is what Margaret had to say on the subject: "It is a sector I would be happy to see develop further." Daring, no?
Tellingly, Margaret, in her red suit, shared the platform with Renate, in her green suit. Renate Kunast is Germany's environment minister, and the contrast between the two women made for intriguing viewing. Because where Margaret relied on waffle, Renate relied on concrete policies. For instance, Renate told us that in Germany they had set a target: in 10 years they aimed to have 20 per cent of farmland operating organically.
Why shouldn't we have the same? Today we have targets for everything. We have targets for reducing numbers of smokers, targets for when children should learn to tell the time, and targets for how many homes should have computers. But we don't have one for this basic agricultural reform.
I don't have to repeat that the health of the agricultural economy, as well as consumer confidence, has been horribly damaged in recent years. But it's worth saying that this presents an opportunity, since there is now a huge hunger for change not just from environmentalists, but from farmers and consumers. Yes, Margaret Beckett did say she was looking for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. She admitted its subsidy system was "blunt, inefficient and ineffective" and should be phased out.
But where's her alternative? At the moment British farmers receive about £3bn in Common Agricultural Policy subsidies, while only about £20m of government money is directed to supporting organic farmers. A revolution is necessary, but the danger is that, now the steaming, stinking piles of animal corpses produced by the foot-and-mouth crisis have been buried, the Government will bury real reform.
Not to mention the farmers. It's commonplace at this point for an urban journalist to move straight from knocking the Government to knocking farmers. But I don't know how useful that is. A lot of farmers are looking for a way out of this mess, and a lot of them would be delighted to start farming in a more environmentally responsible manner – if they could afford it. I talked to a farmer yesterday about why farmers aren't doing what the disaffected shoppers want them to do – supplying local, organic produce at prices we can afford.
Peter Hall is a farmer in Kent. For 20 years he has been growing apples and pears and hops and cereal crops. "Come on, Peter," I said, or words to this effect. "Why aren't you contributing to biodiversity and food safety and turning all your land over to organic produce?" "Come on, Natasha," he said – or words to this effect. "How can I afford it? Of course I'd like to do that. As it is, half of my business is organic. I'm the only organic hop producer in the country. But if I make the whole business organic, I'm taking a huge financial risk. Organic fruit is a tricky business: you have good years and bad years. But there's no safety net. Why should I run that risk?"
And how many farmers would agree with Peter Hall? Contrary to popular liberal belief, not all farmers are loonies who spend their time hunting foxes and ramblers. Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, has told me that one in 10 of Britain's farmers have rung the Soil Association's advice line on organic conversion in the past four years. But if they don't go for it, the responsibility must lie with the Government. Many farmers in Britain are facing economic catastrophe now. They could take the leap into organic farming, and then they'd get help from the Government with conversion costs. But that help is decreased after two years and ends completely after five years.
For a farmer such as Mr Hall, this system makes no sense. He knows that organic farming is a long-term commitment. "I have a problem with people being bribed into organic farming. Paying just for conversion is a bad idea because you get farmers who go into it when they're on the brink, and when the money runs out they fail."
In other European countries, organic stewardship schemes don't cut off after five years – they go on as long as the farmers keep up organic production. That's great for them, but it distorts the market in Britain. Imported produce can undercut our locally produced organic food, and will go on doing so until British farmers get similar ongoing subsidies for organic stewardship.
This is the time for the Government to seize the initiative. When commentators talk about the environment, they often talk in global terms, and this can create a sense of impotence on the part of national governments. A global outlook is important, but when it comes to boosting the health of our environment and our local food markets, local solutions are necessary, and they lie in the hands of our governments. Dismantling the subsidy system without putting new supports in place won't do the consumer or the environment much good. Much has been made of Margaret Beckett's taste for rural holidays, but if she doesn't seize that nettle of reform, in a few years there may not be so much green and pleasant land to look at through her caravan windows.