Leading Article: Return of the real farmer

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The Independent Online
If they hadn't been so distracted by the fox, the country folk who packed into London's Hyde Park last week might have noticed that far bigger changes could be about to hit rural Britain. Many would have been cheered by the news that the much-reviled Common Agricultural Policy price-support system - endless source of Brussels-madness stories for the media - is to be phased out, though some of the richer farmers may have had a ghastly vision of Europe's biggest gravy train chugging away out of view.

On Wednesday, Brussels will air proposals to provide farmers with direct income support gradually replacing a system that, since 1962, has rigged food prices to bolster farm income. The CAP guarantees farmers a minimum price for every side of beef, every tonne of wheat, every litre of milk produced in Europe. It costs its taxpayers pounds 30bn a year, most of which goes on buying unwanted food to store in silos or freezers or to subsidise exports.

On top of that is the additional weekly subsidy that every householder pays in the form of dearer food - some pounds 1,000 a year for a family of four. Nor have these handouts protected the countryside and the (much-talked about this week) "country way of life". While set-aside flourishes, flower- rich meadows have virtually disappeared from the landscape (some 97 per cent lost since the Second World War); 80,000 miles of hedgerows have been grubbed up or just decayed through neglect; and once-common wildlife species have become rare. It has, though, the big farmers will argue, increased "efficiency"- measured in output per acre, per cow, per farmworker - but this efficiency has been at the cost of driving thousands of small farmers to the wall, and vastly reducing the farm labour force and job opportunities for rural citizens. And finally, of increasing concern to a consuming public more informed than ever of the consequences of overuse of biocides and intensive animal-rearing, it has improved the quantity and availability of food only at the expense of food quality.

If these were not urgent enough reasons for reform, there are others. Negotiations are about to begin on enlarging the European Union from 15 to 21 nations. If the present system of farmer subsidy is already too expensive (about 45 per cent of the total EU budget) then admitting five former Communist farm-dependent economies under current regulations would bankrupt the Union. And, once again, the threat of over-production looms, but this time with the fear that the 1999 World Trade Organisation talks will make it illegal to subsidise exports.

The Prime Minister and Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, have already welcomed what they have seen of the new Brussels proposal. Mr Cunningham has gone further and suggested that the Commission is thinking along similar lines to the Government. They are likely to have a tough fight in Europe however, notably from the big farming nations, such as Germany and Spain. And within Britain, too, there will be winners and losers. Earlier versions of the proposals were vehemently denounced in 1991 by John Gummer, former Tory agriculture minister, on the grounds that "cheques in the post" to unsuccessful farmers would turn the countryside into a museum. He did not, however, oppose the set-aside arrangements that ensured rather larger cheques (million pound cheques for set-aside are not unknown) to the big eastern England grain growers.

But Mr Blair and Mr Cunningham are right to see that such a reform could be the basis of a coherent rural strategy for Britain, and that, in Franz Fischler, Europe has an agricultural commissioner who for once is pushing a more Britain-friendly policy than the CAP's lop-sided support system. Fischler's commitment to a new agricultural order in Europe offers the Government the opportunity to respond to a growing number of different demands at home: for safe food at reasonable prices, for more organic production, for an economic framework that encourages regional foods and disappearing fruit varieties, things which had become almost extinct under a regime that rewards intensive, chemically enhanced, hormone-laced, BSE- ridden production.

There is no suggestion, even from Europe, that the initial stages of such a policy would be cheaper. But in the long-term, and with the political will, we could pay less for better food. And farmers could once again be the genuine stewards, rather than the subsidised factory managers, of the countryside.