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Is there a future for farming?
What next for farmers?

Foot-and-mouth has cost the UK economy 9bn and over 800,000 animals have been slaughtered. The crisis has generated new sympathy for farmers. But do they deserve it? Julian Pettifer asks whether Britain still needs farmers.

Eventually the fires will die away and foot-and-mouth will be banished. Livestock farmers will face fundamental questions that, unlike the disease, will not go away.

They will have to decide whether to restock and carry on. The government needs to decide how much the country is prepared to pay for them, because at present they're costing us dear.

Richard D. North
Richard D. North believes Foot-and-mouth is the farmers' wake up call
The farmers have their critics. Richard D. North of the Institute of Economic Affairs says "They take the money when things are going well, and then they whinge like crazy when things are going badly like this."

The annual European Union budget is about 90bn euros. Almost 37bn of this is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The present system of subsidies is a shambles. The UK pours over 4bn a year into CAP, of which 3bn comes home to British farmers. That is an average of 4 per taxpayer per week.

Hidden Expense

Panorama has calculated that an average of 14% of the retail price of beef is subsidy. So for every 10 you spend on beef you've already paid 1.40 in tax.


Each time you buy some food you pay for it three times

Jules Pretty
Professor Jules Pretty believes that the "cheap food policy" that Britain have been pursuing for the last half-century is a misnomer. He says that the expense is hidden.

He says, "Each time you buy some food you pay for it three times. You pay for it once at the till, you pay for it a second time through taxes that are used for subsidies... and you pay for it a third time to clean up the environmental mess created by the modern system of farming that we have."

Attack on subsidies

In Geneva, work is now going on to eliminate one of those payments. At the World Trade Organisation, many countries are fed up with the way Europe pampers its farmers.

David Spencer
David Spencer wants an end to subsidies
A coalition of 18 agricultural exporting nations led by Australia is pushing for liberalisation. They believe that agricultural products should not be treated any differently to manufactured goods and services.

David Spencer, Australia's chief negotiator at the WTO, says, "We would very much hope that we can move away from subsidies which simply encourage over-production."

The UK is tiny in comparison to the World's other food producing nations. Richard D. North believes our farmers will struggle if there is equal, unsubsidised access for all of them to our markets.

He says "I can't see that there's a future for many farmers producing much or a very high percentage of Britain's food, and I don't even think it would be right for us to want that."

But farmer Peter Hogg says "What really worries me is that people are producing food in other parts of the world without the environmental conditions, without the safety conditions, without the pesticide standards that we are having to apply in this country, and with costs being piled onto us like that, there's no way we can compete."

Tourism

Richard D. North believes the UK will benefit from a free market for farming. He says, "It's a brutal thing to say but a lot of farmers will get out of the market one way or another and this may be the trigger for a better thing for them in the future - tourism or whatever - so it may be just the knock."

Tourism in our countryside is already worth 12bn to the economy, much more than farming. Recent modern industrialised farming has undermined the idea of the farmer as protector of the countryside, but some are rediscovering these skills.

Holiday Cottages
Farm buildings have been converted to holiday cottages
Farmer Austin Righton is now paid for his new skills as a land manager. He is attracting holidaymakers to holiday cottages converted from his old farm buildings. A billion pounds of taxpayers' money is earmarked for similar schemes.

Whether such random forces will determine the future of farming and of the countryside may depend on the great national debate promised by Tony Blair. But the idea of a debate surviving the unfolding horror of foot and mouth and the turmoil of an election must be doubtful.

The arguments about compensation will begin, and political instinct might suggest forgetting the whole ghastly business.

Panorama reports on the challenges facing the Farming Industry.
VideoWatch Crisis in the Countryside

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