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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
Who needs farmers anyway?
By Miriam O'Reilly
BBC Radio 4's Farming Today Programme

Once the smoke from the foot-and-mouth pyres that choked the British countryside in 2001 had cleared, it was glaringly obvious farming was not as economically important to rural areas as tourism.

It may have cost the country 7bn, but most of this was down to tourist attractions having to close and visitors being kept away. Most farmers were generously compensated.

The recent downpours may also have cost farmers dear, but again it will be lost summer bookings that will really cost the country.

Ruined grain harvests will not mean higher bread prices because supermarkets will replenish their shelves with cheap imports. Few will weep for the farmer.

Lambs, north Yorkshire
Producing food helps make the countryside what it is

For food producers the figures make uncomfortable reading. While tourism accounts for 4.5% of what the country generates every year, agriculture contributes less than 1% - and that is with the help of a 2.8bn leg-up from the taxpayer through the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

Take wheat as an example. Here we are struggling to get combines on to sodden ground, paying a fortune to dry what can be recovered and have to plough a billion pounds' worth of crops back into the ground.

You put your questions to Andrew Opie, from the NFU in an interactive forum

Meanwhile, the silos in the Ukraine are overflowing with the stuff that can produce bread just as cheaply.

So the question has to be asked: instead of farmers trying to grow food on expensive land in overcrowded islands, wouldn't it be better to turn the countryside over to recreation and leisure?

Why not just import the food we cannot grow profitably at home, especially now the European Union has expanded to include countries like Hungary and Poland, which produce high quality food for far less money?

UK total - 3.197bn
England - 2.384bn
Wales - 165m
Scotland - 471m
N Ireland - 177m
Employment share:
UK - 1.8%
England & Wales - 1.6%
Scotland - 2.7%
N Ireland - 7.1%
Source: Defra

We already import a third of our beef, much of it from countries in South America where land is cheap and cattle are ranched in vastly greater numbers on rich grassland.

The abattoirs and packing plants meet EU standards, so there can be no argument there.

And while we are 85% self-sufficient in lamb, we struggle to compete with New Zealand's imports which are plentiful, cheap, and popular with shoppers.

We are 75% self-sufficient in pork, but Danish bacon undercuts British producers who complain that there's no money in pigs.

Changing expectations

And what about fruit and veg?

Organic apples
Increasingly, shoppers want to know where their food comes from
Take tomatoes for example. They grow well and cheaply (there is that word again) in Spain, so why put up expensive glasshouses here?

And strawberries - why cover the countryside with polytunnels when fruit grows naturally well in sunnier climes?

Kevin Hawkins, of the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, says consumer tastes and expectations have changed.

Customers now expect retailers to stock a wide range of fruit and veg all year round - many of these are either not grown in the UK or only seasonally.

"Problems with the livestock sector such as foot-and-mouth disease and BSE have reduced the UK herd, meaning our productive capacity has declined," he says.

"Big food manufacturers have also been moving production capacity outside the UK, so more branded products are being imported."

So yes, we could import most of what we need from abroad. And, yes, a lot of it might even be cheaper. But there are still very good reasons for growing our own.

After foot-and-mouth and BSE, with salmonella and E-coli food scares, consumers say knowing where their food comes from is becoming as important to them as price.

Farmers argue they are needed, because without them the countryside would change for the worse

More and more people want to know the history of the food on their plate. On the whole, British farmers produce high quality food which can be traced back to the farm gate.

Out of the ashes of the foot-and-mouth pyres has risen the phrase "local food for local people".

Campaigning groups like Sustain and the Soil Association, which promote organic standards, argue that buying food as locally as possible is the best way forward for producers and shoppers.

Food rationalisation

As part of Sustain's campaign they quote Sir Don Curry's blueprint for the future of food and farming:

Burning of carcasses during the foot-and-mouth crisis
Foot-and-mouth led to a drop in the UK's productive capacity
"Local food markets could deliver on all aspects of sustainable development - economic (by providing producers with a profitable route to market), environmental (by cutting down on the pollution associated with food transportation, and by interesting consumers in how the land around them is farmed), and social (by encouraging a sense of community between buyer and seller, town and country)."

Even Sean Rickard, once chief economist for the National Farmers' Union, now of Cranfield University and a well-known critic of the subsidy system, would not advocate us abandoning farming.

He says it is perfectly possible to have efficient food production in Britain, but land prices (and therefore production costs) are artificially high because of the "wall of protection that has been built around Europe's farmers".

The subsidy system has also encouraged agriculture to expand to unrealistic proportions.

That is all changing with reform of CAP. Farmers in future will receive a single payment for protecting the environment. They will only produce food there is a market for.

It will spark innovation and set them free to become more competitive in food production.

Farmers argue they are needed, because without them the countryside would change for the worse.

Producing food helps make the countryside what it is - and therefore plays a major part in attracting business, and the tourists which keep rural Britain alive.


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