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Tuesday, 29 January, 2002, 14:24 GMT
Farm report gets two cheers
Tractor in ploughed field   BBC
The commission's proposals would direct subsidies away from producing crops
Alex Kirby

A rousing welcome has greeted the report of the English Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food. Many of farming's sternest critics believe it shows the way forward.

I'd be very surprised if there's anything more than marginal change in the next three or four years

Sir Simon Gourlay, former NFU president
The main dissentient voice comes from the National Farmers' Union, opposed to plans to redirect subsidies from production to environmental protection.

But there are questions the commission has not answered, and perhaps could not.

What nobody knows, first, is whether anything will actually change. Ben Gill, the farmers' leader, criticising the commission's findings, said: "Too many reports are now gathering dust. We must now deliver."

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which argues for farming that respects wildlife, thinks there is all to play for.

Attention diverted

It says: "The report does tackle the difficult balance between the sensitivities of an industry in crisis, and the environmental, social and agronomic imperatives to change.

"The key challenge now is making it happen. Ministers must champion the report to 10 Downing Street in order to win the new money from the Treasury."

The Prime Minister's interest in farming, acute at the height of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, appears to have waned as the disease has dropped out of the headlines. So, nobody is betting that this report will make the government act.

Skylark   RSPB
Intensive farming can damage wildlife
If it does decide to do something, there may be changes for all of us.

There is concern that the price of food could rise, though that is far from certain.

The report suggests switching some of the European Union's subsidies into agri-environment and rural development schemes. But that would not have to mean price rises. It could leave them largely unchanged, and could also leave farmers earning as much as they do now.

Action could also mean a more varied countryside, or at least a slowdown in the destruction of habitats and the threats to wild creatures.

The RSPB comments: "The report is good for the environment. For the first time, it becomes a key principle for making more money available to the industry."

Jobs at risk

Yet for all the welcoming noises, there are serious critics who take the commission to task for what it does not say.

To 'green' farming means tackling health goals such as the need to eat more vegetables and fruit

Tim Lang, professor of food policy
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, believes the report missed an opportunity on health.

He said: "To 'green' farming means tackling health goals such as the need to eat more vegetables and fruit. What we really need is for government to take the report's positive environmental suggestions, while adding the marginalised ingredient of human health."

Friends of the Earth called the report "only a first step towards a greener future". It said thousands of farmers would be forced out of business unless the government addressed the power of the supermarkets, and trade liberalisation.

Low expectations

The Organic Targets Campaign, which wants 30% of the UK's agricultural land to be used for organic crops by 2010, complained that the report had recommended no targets.

Sir Simon Gourlay, a former NFU president, is deeply sceptical that anything will change.

Tractor, PA
Will the government act?
He told BBC News Online: "I'm certainly not against the principle underlying the report, but I'd be very surprised if there's anything more than marginal change in the next three or four years.

"I don't think the Treasury will want to provide the 100m ($141m) it's expected to find as co-financing.

"I don't see much changing until something is done on a European basis to reform the common agricultural policy. Till then it's going to be an uphill struggle."

See also:

29 Jan 02 | UK Politics
English farming 'unsustainable'
29 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Wary welcome for farming report
04 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Beckett calls for farming reforms
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