British farming is locked into reliance on EU support – and consumers will be the losers if the underpinning is removed, warns Devon farm shop owner Richard Haddock.
It's impossible not to be drawn into conversations with customers when you run a shop like mine. But it's surprising how often those conversations swing round to the subject of Europe and our membership of the European Union. The general view among those who talk to me is that they are happy with the security that membership of the EU brings – particularly given the violent history of the last few hundred years – but they don't want any part of a European federation.
On a specific point they do see the point of continuing financial support for British farmers because they realise how close to the wind many British growers and producers are now sailing.
And that is why I believe the NFU has to exercise every last ounce of power and influence it has to ensure the government does not sign away our entitlements as the future shape of the Common Agricultural Policy is debated.
For years, of course, we had a government which didn't care whether farms sank or swam, which was happy to see food imports scaling up and home producers priced out of the market.
I would like to think that the coalition – which at least purports to be in touch with the countryside and at least boasts a Farming Minister from a rural constituency – grasps the reality of the situation and realises the enormous consequences for farmers and consumers were the level of farm support to be significantly watered down or (unthinkably) withdrawn.
Other governments certainly do, which is why the French have been battling so resolutely to keep farm support in place as one of the main planks of European policy. The French care passionately about their food and they almost deify the people who produce it. As well as ensuring their farmers continue to receive direct EU support they also underpin their operations in other ways.
But there appears to be a large body of opinion in this country which believes that scrapping CAP support for farmers will somehow make food cheaper. Goodness me, what a shock they are in for.
Naivety like this puts me in mind of the NFU official (who had never driven a tractor, laid a hedge or shovelled muck) advising farmers when the Single Farm Payment was introduced not to include the money in their balance sheets. They were to set it aside rather than rely on it. The market would very soon, he assured them, deliver the higher prices they required in the absence of direct subsidies. Complete nonsense, of course: as soon as the payments started to flow supermarkets – who when all is said and done are the ones that dictate food policy in this country – merely increased their downward pressure on producers because they knew they had a lump sum coming.
Since then farmers have had to carry on propping up their businesses with the single payment, stewardship cash or whatever else they can lay their hands on because the market still refuses to pay the going rate – and is now even more reluctant to with consumers' purses considerably lighter than they once were.
Even with the single payment cash arable producers are only just breaking even. But they have none of the costs livestock farmers in the South West and Wales face annually to maintain hedges and hedge banks: indeed were recently collecting grants to reinstate the ones they themselves had grubbed out.
Arable farmers receive the same area payments as livestock farmers but deliver none of the extra benefits in return: none of the wildlife benefits livestock farmers create, none of the attractive and well-maintained landscapes that attract tourists and their money. After all when was the last time anyone wanted to go and look at a prairie?
Yet the last time the CAP was shaken up and put back together again livestock farmers came away with a 20 per cent cut in support and arable farmers and horticulturalists with a 20 per cent increase.
Politicians have to understand that farm support is a necessity. The fact that we already receive less than in other countries is one of the reasons our food imports are scarily high – food can be produced more cheaply elsewhere because farms are more heavily subsidised.
Livestock farmers are working hard on making better use of grass, improving breeding performance, achieving a better meat to bone ratio – which can be done without resorting to genetic tinkering. But this is all taking place against a background of rising costs for feed, energy and fuel – which look the more likely to rise with each natural disaster, such as this year's US drought.
It is not whether food would somehow become more affordable without agricultural support. It's whether anyone could continue to afford to produce food at all if it were withdrawn.