View from the House

For the second time in 12 months farmers have received a rescue package.

Is it justified?

In a free market, the UK’s generally efficient agriculture would survive in the most favoured parts of the country.

What farmers produce are, of course, commodities, the prices of which can be subject to wild fluctuations.

This year, everything has conspired against British agriculture. In the wake of BSE and the collapse of sheep and pig prices, farmers also face a poorish harvest and low grain prices.

The United Kingdom, before we joined the EU and through the CAP since, has supported the aim of achieving self-sufficiency in temperate produce.

In the less favoured areas, which include nearly all of Scotland and Wales and upland England, this could never be achieved if the costs had to be fully covered by market prices.

Income from tourism and environmental measures could help supplement the shortfall in farming incomes – but not every farm is on a tourist route or in an area of high environmental priority.

Subsidies aside, additional costs have been piled onto British farmers, which our competitors do not face. BSE has been a multibillion-pound disaster.

Inspection and traceability schemes designed to keep BSE out of the food chain are prodigiously expensive. Where producers were being paid #80 a ton for waste, they are now paying #60 a ton to have it taken away.

Our self-imposed pig welfare scheme also adds to costs.

If we insist on higher costs for higher safety and then cut subsidies and open up the market, we could destroy British agriculture, leaving the British consumer at the mercy of imports over which we have limited control.

Careful consideration is needed as to the degree of our self-sufficiency; how much control for consumer safety and what kind of landscape and economy we wish to sustain.

Free trade and free markets do not mean we cannot at least attempt to manage change and secure the right national balance.

Malcolm Bruce is Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon and the party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs

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