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Big Government in the Countryside
Paper presented at SCA Conference
"Who should run the countryside? Rural Scotland 2006"
Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, Edinburgh, 25h
Struan Stevenson MEP
Filed 09 May 06
The remit of the conference today is to answer
the question, “Who should run the countryside?”
I think it would be a lot easier, at least for
me to say "who shouldn't run the countryside?" The answer
is of course the Blair Government and DEFRA and the Scottish Executive
and SEERAD. Because between them, these half-baked, incompetent,
bureaucratic, bungling, Stalinist autocrats have just about brought
about the complete ruination of the farming industry in Britain!
So you know now why I was introduced as being pugnacious.
So the answer to the question “Who should
run the countryside?” is easy. It is the farmers themselves
who should run the countryside. Unless farmers start to take control
of their own destinies, we may yet face the almost unthinkable disappearance
of one of Britain’s great traditional industries.
Struan Stevenson MEP
(To enlarge photo Click
But my specific task is to talk about Big Government
in the countryside. Big Government wears big boots and leaves big
footprints. I think we need to remind our government at Westminster
and at Holyrood, and, in fact, we need to remind the public that
Britain’s beautiful countryside didn’t happen by accident.
The fields and the hedges, the rivers and the burns don’t
look after themselves. Generations of farmers have provided Britain
with a landscape that is the envy of the world, and with food and
agricultural products of a quality and standard that beat anything
found anywhere on the planet. It is Britain’s farmers who
are in the front line when it comes to protecting and enhancing
our environment. It is Britain’s farmers who care for the
protection and conservation of wildlife. We need to remind the government
and the public that the agriculture sector is a strategic sector
of our economy and plays a crucial role in our society. So the future
of the farming industry will have a direct impact on every citizen
in this country.
It is all very well enjoying ever-lower prices
for food from Tesco and Asda. Indeed this morning we hear that Tesco
has announced yet again record breaking profits of 2.2 billion pounds,
up 16% on last year. But, if we allow our indigenous farming industry
to be destroyed, we will be at the mercy of foreign imports and
of the price hikes, and poor hygiene and welfare standards that
such an unsustainable policy involves.
That cannot be the way forward. Just look at the
current chaotic situation affecting our dairy farmers. Thanks to
the Looney Tunes economics, which allow supermarkets to squeeze
down the price of milk to 17p a litre, while they sell it on to
the public at 50p a litre, many of our dairy farmers are now facing
bankruptcy. Meanwhile the supermarkets can import surplus milk and
other dairy products from other EU Member States at prices kept
low either by either subsidies or cheap production methods (as in
Poland and some of the other recent Accession countries). It is
worth remembering as well, that even at 50p a litre, milk is still
half the price of bottled water on the supermarket shelves! That’s
With oil at over $70 a barrel, it no longer makes
sense to import turkeys from Israel, lamb from New Zealand and beef
from Argentina and Brazil. With parts of the Amazon rainforest the
size of Wales being cut down every year to grow GM free soya to
supply the European market, then the conservationists who talk about
Frankenstein foods should realise that they are contributing to
the destruction of the planet and not helping it by opposing GMOs.
As for the incomes of our farmers, these have
dropped to an unbelievably low level. We’ve seen a fall of
34%, from £19,800 average income in 2003/4 to only £13,100
in 2004/5. And that doesn’t even compare with, or come anywhere
near, the average wage in the UK, which currently sits at over £20,000.
It is almost impossible to imagine factory workers
and Trade Unions accepting a wage of £13,000. They would strike;
they would demonstrate; they would bring the country to its knees
until they received a suitable deal. So why are our farmers meekly
accepting this disastrous situation?
In 1995, in food that can be grown in the UK,
we were still 87% self-sufficient. But, since Labour came to power,
we have witnessed a sharp drop - which continues to accelerate every
year. We can now only meet 70% of our needs and that figure is falling,
it will soon be down to 60%. But the scale of this decline is even
more shocking when you look at specific sectors. Such a flood of
cheap poultry meat is now pouring into Britain from Brazil and Thailand
(and Kate Hoey mentioned those £2.99p chickens in Tesco) that
imports have increased from 1,000 tons a year to 70,000 tons. And
remember, these are birds often produced under health and welfare
conditions which would constitute a criminal offence in Britain.
In 1995, the UK was still producing 109% of its
beef consumption, with a thriving export trade. For all the reasons
that are all too familiar to us, that figure has collapsed today
to 71% and we have huge quantities of beef being imported from countries
such as Argentina and Brazil.
In 1994 we still had 476,000 acres producing fruit
and veg in Britain. That’s fallen now to only 373,000 acres.
The UK’s pig herd has dropped in ten years from 789,000 to
So it is a desperate picture. But if we are to survive, then we
will do so not simply through food production. Sadly those days
are gone. The importance of developing new sustainable and competitive
projects on our farms will allow us to embrace the evolving society
we live in.
But firstly let me consider the influence Europe
has on rural affairs in Scotland. As we know, Europe has been increasing
its power and influence over rural affairs since its conception
in the 1950s. The CAP became one of the key pillars of the Community
with the annual farm budget regularly exceeding 50% of total EU
spending. All that has changed and those changes are set to accelerate.
As the CAP budget rapidly shrinks, so will the number of farmers
in the EU rapidly increase. There are currently 11 million farmers
in our 25 Member States. But that figure will rise to 14 million
next year when Romania and Bulgaria join the EU. That will have
a huge impact on the CAP, on the budget and on the way all of us
live and work as farmers.
And when Turkey joins the Community in 10 years
time, if they ever do join, they will bring with them not only a
rapidly expanding population, currently 70 million, but set to rise
to 110 million by the time they join EU. But half of their population
are currently engaged in agriculture. The impact Turkish membership
of the EU would have on the CAP, and indeed on the whole budget
of the EU would be catastrophic.
So we have to ask the question, "Who has
benefited from the Common Agricultural Policy?". Well I can
tell you it’s certainly not British farmers. Indeed, under
this supposedly lavish blanket of subsidies and support, we have
seen our farmers steadily become impoverished. But that hasn’t
been the case for our French cousins across the channel.
France boasts 28 million hectares of agricultural
land, whereas Britain has 16 million hectares. So they are a bit
bigger than us. Fair enough! However, French farmers receive £6.9
billion a year from the CAP (40% of the total), while British farmers
receive a paltry £3 billion (9% of the total). Why is that?
For one simple reason. The French government stands up for its farmers,
while the British government couldn’t care less.
For example, young farmers in France can apply
for cash hand-outs to start up in farming, whereas in Britain no
such schemes exist. Older French farmers can receive retirement
packages, there’s no such scheme in Britain. If we take the
case of French young farmers, they can receive a premium of up to
£24,900, depending on the zone they live in, or even a subsidised
loan, where the maximum is £76,000 over 10 years at 2% interest
which is itself subsidised by the French government. No wonder UK
farmers are moving to France! Even in Ireland, young farmers can
receive a single payment of over £6,600 to start up in farming.
Here, our farmers – young and old alike - are simply left
to dangle in the wind - hung out to dry, like so much dirty washing,
by our government who have no sympathy whatsoever with the countryside.
Unfortunately it is not just France and Ireland
that show us up in this respect. The majority of EU member states
give that sort of aid to their young farmers and to their retiring
farmers - all except the UK.
One of the key challenges that the EU faces at
the moment is demographic change, and the need to improve the flexibility
of our labour market and encourage more young people into work.
This is an area the farming industry as a whole needs to concentrate
on. But as it stands, the UK is amongst those member states with
the smallest proportion of young farmers; at only 4%, compared to
say Germany, Austria and Ireland, where the figure stands at around
13%. And believe me, these figures do not auger well for the future.
So why is it that French farmers do so well compared
to Scottish farmers?
They do well because they are supported by their
government and by the French people. It is not only Mr Chirac who
supports the CAP. This would not be enough. It is the whole French
political class. Everyone is behind their farmers because they recognise
the importance of this industry for the country’s overall
economy. That clearly is not the case in the UK. Here we are faced
with an extreme lack of support from the government and from the
Scottish Executive and, I fear, even a lack of sympathy from the
The Blair government has made few steps forward
in the farming world. Often we see Mrs Beckett coming over to Brussels
making loud noises about helping British farmers but then she returns
back home with barrow-loads of red tape which simply add to the
misery of our agricultural sector. South of the Border, DEFRA’s
shambolic handling of single farm payments in England has brought
many of the farmers to the brink of economic hardship. It is an
The situation is now beyond the pale. DEFRA promised
payments in January, then February, then the end of April and now
they are saying it will be the end of June. How are our English
farming colleagues supposed to plan their finances? The European
Commission, you know, asked DEFRA to stick with the historic system
that has served our Scottish and Welsh farmers adequately but it
was Mrs Beckett who decided to opt for the bureaucracy that has
caused this debacle. Now I know that this shambolic state of affairs
has no direct impact on our farmers here in Scotland, but I illustrate
it as an example of the total chaos at the heart of the Blair government’s
handling of agriculture. Agriculture may have been devolved, but
as we’ve heard already this morning Margaret Beckett still
represents British farming interests in the Council of Ministers
in Europe, and during the British presidency chaired the council
Ultimately, as Secretary of State, she is responsible for this catalogue
of blunders and the time has come not only for her to apologise,
the time has come for her to resign.
Having said all that, Europe still has a major
influence on farming in Scotland. The latest big news in Europe
concerned the lifting of the beef export ban. This was of course
great news for Scottish beef. It added to the news that the EU has
banned all bovine meat coming from the north east of Argentina and
certain provinces of Brazil, due to a foot-and-mouth outbreak. These
factors taken together present a great god sent opportunity for
Scottish beef producers.
But let me say another word about the CAP. It
was referred to in a recent article in The Economist, as “the
single most idiotic system of economic mismanagement that the rich
western countries have ever devised”. But the CAP has been
declining from 70% to 40% to 30% of the total EU budget year on
year. As we all know, this is going to continue with the new member
states absorbing more and more of these funds.
Certainly the CAP has succeeded in its objective
of de-coupling subsidy from production, but don’t think for
a minute that decoupling has been applied even-handedly across the
EU. Go and ask Europe’s tobacco farmers if they’ve been
de-coupled from the £700 million subsidy they received last
year. Ask the EU’ s wine producers if they’ve suffered
de-coupling from the £830 million subsidy they receive every
year. (I never knew it was so difficult to sell a bottle of wine
that you need a hefty subsidy!) And go and ask the olive oil growers
from Italy, Spain and Greece if they’ve been de-coupled from
the £1.5 billion that they get year on year.
But the main benefit of de-coupling is that our farmers will be
free to produce for the market, with the confidence that they can
rely on the single farm payment as bedrock funding. Farmers must
show a farm-gate profit by offering higher quality, better traceability,
supply consistency and improved marketing.
What can we expect in the future?
Well, I can tell you that last week we finalised
the European budget discussion for 2007-2013.
Now you may recall that Mr Blair gave away £7 billion of the
UK rebate, despite his pledge that he would never do so. That means
that in the current budget rural and farming aid stands at around
£200 billion to cover all farm spending up to 2013. But the
latest deal means that the UK, together with the 14 original Member
States of the EU, the old 15 in other words, are going to face cuts
of up to 12% in their farm budgets up to 2013.
In such straightened circumstances, our farmers are going to have
to look for new initiatives. One of these areas worth pursuing is
that of biomass, and I think farmers should seriously think about
diversifying into crop production for biofuels, industrial oils,
detergents, paints, pharmaceuticals and biocides. And I think the
government should look very carefully at giving some aid that would
encourage farmers to do that.
Recently, however, the UK government announced
that it had only reached a pathetic 0.3% share for biofuels on its
forecourts, well below European targets.
The long-term solution to Europe’s rural
prosperity has to be found in the market. The market, as we all
know, is king. The market drives everything. For too long we have
been lulled by a sea of subsidies into producing commodities which
the market did not want or was already over supplied with.
Those days are gone. Farmers must identify niche
or global marketing opportunities and produce goods which the consumer
wants or needs. They can do this individually or collectively, through
marketing co-operatives, producer groups or similar organisations.
Farming cannot survive unless it is able to meet the challenges
of enlargement and globalisation. The challenge will be to match
supply to consumer demand, the age-old law of economics.
Reform of the CAP and an increasingly competitive
world market is presenting us with the opportunity to take British
As for the perception of the EU ruling the countryside,
this is becoming less and less true as the CAP diminishes. Therefore
we need to install some key priorities. We must endeavour to support
farmers to manage the countryside so that conservation, farming
and tourism can evolve together. We want to help them supply home
grown, high quality food produced to high welfare and hygiene standards
- giving consumers confidence in what they are eating - and non-food
products such as biofuels that are in increasing demand.
We need to encourage more young farmers into the
industry to take farming forward. But, mainly, farmers must learn
to take control of their own futures. They should forget their reliance
on governments and on EU subsidies. Such relationships have only
ended in betrayal in the past. Agriculture must be innovative and,
therefore, open to new methods and new challenges. A revolution
in the countryside is necessary if our farmers are to survive!
If we can work together to encourage the public
to see the future importance of these new farming services, and
if we can demonstrate our entrepreneurial skills in the agriculture
sector, then we will be very close to running our own countryside.
This is the only way forward. This is the only way we will have
Further reading recommended by Land-Care
Tony (2006)." Who should run the countryside? Rural Scotland
4th Annual Conference, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, Edinburgh,
25th April 2006
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 04 May 06,
Here to View
Kate (2006). Chairman, Countryside Alliance. "Who should run
the countryside? Rural Scotland 2006."
4th Annual Conference, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, Edinburgh,
25th April 2006
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 08 May 06,
Here to View
Magnus (2006). Linklater's Scotland. Could we be on the verge of
losing another British industry?
Spectrum Magazine of Scotland on Sunday, 19th March 2006.
Reproduced on Land-Care with kind permission
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 21 Mar 06,
Here to View
Acknowledgements and Disclaimer
Land-Care is grateful to Tony Andrews, CEO
Scottish Countryside Alliance, and to Dick Playfair of Playfair
Walker for the invitation to attend the conference in a media capacity,
the opportunity to participate in both formal and informal discussion,
and for their help in providing Land-Care with transcripts of the
No responsibility for errors or omissions
in the transcription process can be taken by SCA, Playfair Walker
Kimpton Graphics is a division of Land-Care.