Pity the farmers, but don't give them another penny in subsidies

Pity the farmers, but don't give them another penny in subsidies

August 6, 2001 The Independent (London) by Stephen Pollard

WHO'D BE a farmer, eh? You spend years building up your flock only to see it wiped out overnight by foot-and-mouth. You're ruined, everything you have worked for destroyed. And what do you get in return? Oh, a mere pounds 1m[illion] (or a reported paltry pounds 4.2m for one unfortunate farmer).

For months we have been fed a diet of woe by the farming subsidy lobby group, the National Farmers' Union. Almost every day we have had to listen to Ben Gill describing his members' plight. And yes, of course, many farmers have indeed suffered great loss and trauma as a consequence of foot- and- mouth. But yesterday's revelation of the scale and riches on offer as part of the Government's compensation package ought, at last, to put this in some kind of perspective. At least 37 farmers have received over pounds 1m. You might think that they would be grateful. No one stopped farmers from insuring against such an outbreak; most simply couldn't see the point. And they weren't wrong. Just as the taxpayer props them up when the going is good, so we're now doing when the going is bad.

Bad, of course, is relative. After all, not many of us who suffer a sudden loss against which we have refused to insure ourselves find that the rest of the country, as taxpayers, turns round and says: "Don't worry. How much did you lose? Here's a cheque."

One recipient, Johnny Thompson, lost a herd valued at more than pounds 2m. This is the extent of his gratitude, as quoted in a Sunday newspaper: "I will have to live off that money for some time because now we have no income." Poor chap. How on earth will he cope living off his compensation? I do not recall the owners of other small businesses who found that circumstances suddenly turned against them being offered compensation by the taxpayer.

But our reaction to this seemingly astonishing largesse towards farmers should not simply be one of anger. It should, instead, be to hope that this latest bout of mollycoddling marks a turning point in the way we treat this most cosseted of all industries. If, at last, we begin to see just how counter-productive and wasteful our farming policies have become, the cost of this latest compensation will have been cheap at the price.

Subsidies account for pounds 5.2bn of an industry with an annual turnover of of pounds 16bn. Leave aside the figures for the unsubsidised sectors of agriculture (such as pigs and potatoes) and the proportion of turnover accounted for by subsidies rises to almost half. Those subsidies, of course, come from you and me. And yet, as soon as anyone dares to make any observations about the way in which farmers behave (let us not forget, after all, who it was who brought us BSE) they are derided as "townies" whose opinion is, by definition, invalid.

So dependent have farmers become on subsidy that they see it as their right, failing even to understand that there is anything which might be odd about their position as the only industry so cosseted. As the economist and farmer Linda Whetstone has pointed out: "farmers are their own worst enemies. They have demanded continued subsidies, and sympathy, from the rest of the country while resolutely refusing to listen to others about what might be best for the countryside." Thus they cannot see what stares the rest of us in the face: that the only sustainable (both economically and environmentally) future for farming is one without subsidy.

As the green campaigner George Monbiot has shown, farm subsidies have driven up the price of land, as well as chemicals and machinery. This triple whammy has driven some 300,000 small farmers out of business since the introduction of modern farm subsidies with the Agriculture Act of 1947. As he puts it: "because subsidies reward acreage and production, 80 per cent of the public funds for farming find their way to just 20 per cent of farmers."

And it is these farmers whose deals with supermarkets further restrict the opportunities for smaller producers. Add to this the damage caused to the countryside landscape by farmers sowing crops such as rape, based wholly on the generous EU subsidies available, and the deleterious effects of subsidies, can be seen not just to affect farmers themselves but the very fabric of our country.

The refusal of the NFU to countenance any vaccination programme is typical of this blinkered self-interest. The NFU speaks only for the big producers who need to keep Britain's "disease-free status". Vaccination would have denied that. Thus the entire agricultural community, the rest of the countryside and the nation itself was forced to suffer the consequences - and costs - of a mass slaughter programme. The NFU poured out propaganda on the importance of "disease-free status". And yet not only is the export market only of concern to a tiny number of already wealthy farmers (the sort who have been pocketing million-pound plus compensation payments), their contribution to our balance of payments is tiny. In the final quarter of 2000, the UK sold pounds 48.7bn worth of goods overseas. Of that, a mere pounds 630m was made up of meat and dairy products. That is the size of the supposed Great British export market.

The net value of all farm produce last year was pounds 1.9bn. So far we have spent pounds 2.2bn merely on the direct costs of foot-and-mouth. Add in the indirect costs, such as the effect on tourism, and the bill is even higher.

Foot-and-mouth has cost us more than the pre-tax profits all of British agriculture in a year. It is no wonder that Elliot Morley, the minister responsible for animal health, said on Saturday that this is "the last time" farmers can expect such payments.

The immediate point has been put most clearly by Lord Whitty, the farming minister: "No other industry would receive that level of support where there was no direct threat to public health and where the problem had been compounded by existing trading practices."

Agriculture makes up just 1.5 per cent of our gross domestic product. Yet for years - and especially since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth - the farming lobby has kept us in an armlock of subsidy and dependency. The enormous sums now being paid in compensation should expose once and for all the myths and sophistry that lie at the heart of farming policy. It is time that farmers learned to stand or fall on their own. We would all benefit.

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