Challenges for West Country Farmers

Some things are certain, we will have a general election next year and the European Parliament will get to use it's new codecision powers for the first time in 2010, giving our MEPs a powerful role in the lives of our farmers throughout the West Country. Both these events will have an impact on farmers, but the most important concern is and will remain the price farmers can get for the goods they produce. We have had a couple of rollercoaster years with prices rising quickly in 2008 only to fall sharply this year. While beef and lamb prices remain buoyant, cereals and milk have dropped to below the cost of production. The economic recession, the weakness of the global economy, ever more bureaucracy and European legislation will make 2010 a tough year. But I suspect the outlook is rosier than it has been for some time for a number of reasons.Firstly, the public are now aware of the role of farmers. For far too long food was taken for granted as was the beautiful rural landscapes that our farmers nurture. Yet when food prices started spiralling they suddenly demanded more food. We now have a global debate about how we are going to feed an ever growing and more affluent population. Agriculture is no longer a backwater issue, it cuts to the very heart of the other great issues of our day, the environment, food security, globalisation and economic development. As a result the public is less hostile to farmers. In addition the market is in farmers favour. Demand is rising continually and in the long term farmers may finally be able to make a good living from beneficial market conditions. This all relies on one thing of course, that the politicians don't stifle any growth through more red tape. 2010 will get off to a bad start in this respect because Electronic Identification of sheep finally comes into force on the 1st January. I constantly fought against this scheme but because the government had twice voted in favour of it in the Council of Ministers, it was always a rearguard action. So now, just at the time when farmers need to be freed from the shackles of bureaucracy, they are locked into another expensive and unnecessary scheme. This highlights the fact that the government must not sign up to any new legislation without doing a proper impact assessment first. The EU is also about to become much more important for our farmers. The Lisbon treaty gives MEPs co-legislative powers on agricultural policy and they will have a whole array of issues to legislate on. The most important is how the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be reformed in 2011. 2010 will therefore become the year of debate about the future of the CAP. Do we want a CAP that allows farmers to gain from the market or do we want more of the same? We will see what the outcome is, but with a Romanian Agriculture Commissioner in charge, the future does not look bright for any huge changes. One issue which we are likely to hear a lot of this year is biotechnology. At some stage this is likely to become a very hot topic because the pressures are building. The tolerance level for GM contamination in non GM shipments of animal feed is so low that many overseas producers are simply not bothering to risk sending non GMO feed to the EU because they fear the inspectors will turn the shipment back for containing a very tiny trace element of GMO material. Our livestock farmers therefore still have to pay way over the world price for animal feed. The rest of the world is embracing biotechnology. With concerns over the global population and the need to grow more food, Europe will not be able to hold out against the tide forever. However, this is tied in with another pressing issue, the need to properly label the food we buy. After the dioxin pork scandal and the concern over Bernard Matthews turkeys following the avian flu outbreak, the bandwagon for country of origin labelling is growing. However, we shouldn't leave it there, nutritional labelling and animal welfare labelling should also be considered. The EU already has a directive in the mixer on labelling which will probably be decided on by the end of the year. We can also expect the issue of climate change and agriculture to become more and more important over the coming year. Already there is a campaign to stop people eating meat and as a fully fledged carnivore, I will be at the forefront of any campaign to highlight just how beneficial meat production can be for the environment. However, to truly address the impact of agriculture on the climate the entire food chain will come under scrutiny, including cultivation, transportation and processing of food. Farmers in the West Country will need to defend the importance of agriculture in this respect. So the year ahead will bring yet more challenges for West Country farmers but also a few opportunities. If the market continues to grow, if we can reduce red tape, if we can get agreements on technical GM tolerance levels along with country of origin labelling and if agriculture can win the arguments on the environment, the future is bright. These are substantial challenges, but all are summountable. However, for me the most important event of 2010, will of course be the general election, with the World cup a close second! Whenever Gordon Brown finally takes the plunge and calls the election you can be sure it will be the defining moment of the year!