Sunday, April 29, 2007

'We're all doomed'

Norfolk farmer David Richardson writes a weekly column in Farmers Weekly. The magazine has recently undergone a revamp under a woman editor, but David Richardson's column has survived, no doubt because he is seen as an articulate spokesperson for the 'big' farmer.

I met David Richardson once and he is undoubtedly a pleasant and sincere guy who defends his corner as best he can. But it's a pretty unreconstructed corner. Any argument will do to defend protection and subsidies for British farmers. Food security has always been a favourite theme of his in recent years. Defra is, of course, either hostile or ignorant to farmers, unlike good old MAFF. Anyone who fails to buy British food (unless it is a tropical crop) is close to being a traitor, while Global South farmers shouldn't be allowed to export to Britain because their animal welfare standards don't match those in one of the richest countries in the world.

In one of his most recent columns, Richardson claims 'subsidies - particularly the SFP element- are going to be phased out over the next few years.' I've heard a distinguished official at a farming organisation taking a similar line. And I've even heard a similar line taken by experienced BBC journalists who should know better.

Now it's more than likely that the 'financial discipline' will reduce SFP between now and 2013 because of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania but only by probably about seven per cent. Given that Mr Richardson, by his own admission, derives some twenty per cent of his farm income from SFP (and more from other payments), he should still be safe for nineteen per cent.

It's likely that SFP will be reduced further after 2013 but it is unlikely to disappear altogether.

So why are the likes of Mr Richardson making such claims which are remnsicent of the famous line favoured by one character in the old British sitcom Dad's Army, 'we're all doomed'? I would suggest because if such claims are made long enough and loud enough, the public will believe that subsidies are not being paid any more.

It has been claimed that the public is becoming more sympathetic to 'supporting' British farmers, although why a commercial activity should need supporting (other than for the public goods it provides) is not clear. But a mixture of ignorance (about the true cost), sentiment (about the countryside) and nationalism (about food security) can provide a heady mix in support of the status quo.

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