Leading article: Reaping what we sow

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The Independent Online

Those attending the farming industry's annual conference in Oxford yesterday were treated to speeches from two politicians who have placed the environment at the heart of their political profiles. The Environment Secretary, David Miliband, told his audience that they must diversify into the production of bio-fuels and satisfy the public's appetite for local produce. The audience got pretty much the same message when the Conservative leader, David Cameron, rose to speak. Neither speech was likely to win much applause. But both were essentially correct in their analysis.

No one can reasonably argue that farmers in this country have prospered in recent years. And the incompetence of the Government has not made their lives any easier. In 2001 came the disastrous foot and mouth outbreak and its gross mismanagement by the Department for the Environment. More recently farmers have been penalised by the late payment of their European Union farm subsidies from the Rural Payments Agency.

But farmers would do well to accept that they are going to face more disruption in the future. Most significantly they will have to adjust to the end of the Common Agricultural Policy. This subsidy mechanism is responsible for a great injustice in the developing world. It undercuts agricultural exports from poor countries and then floods their domestic markets with dumped surpluses. It is true that the CAP has been modified, with the link between some subsidy payments and production levels broken in 2003. But this does not go far enough.

Scrapping the CAP will not be painless for our farmers. But it need not be ruinous either. More food overall would probably be imported. But a good deal can still be grown domestically. As Mr Cameron argued yesterday, there is an increasing appetite for local produce. Farmers' markets are growing in popularity. Farmers must attune themselves better to what customers want. And as Mr Miliband pointed out, energy crops represent a major opportunity for agricultural entrepreneurs. There is no reason why all those fields of subsidised sugar beet and oilseed rape that carpet our countryside should not be used to produce bio-fuels.

If they are to continue to be subsidised by the public purse, farmers will have to devote more of their energy to their role as "stewards of the countryside", rather than as food producers. They will also be expected to make greater use of biogas installations, which process the methane emissions from animal waste. Farmers can play a significant role in forestalling climate change.

The shift to "green farming" will be a struggle. But it will be necessary if British agriculture, as we know it, is to survive.