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Set aside: new row looms between farmers and Defra

[Tuesday 17 February 2009]

JUST as long-standing friction between farmers and the environment department agency Defra was being to cool, a new source of disagreement has arisen over the EU decision to abandon set-aside.

Set-aside – requiring farmers to take part of their land out of production – was introduced some 20 years ago when the EU was facing massive criticism for over-production which was creating butter mountains and wine lakes.

Now, with poor harvests around the world and increasing demand from newly industrialised nations like China and India, there is a growing worldwide shortage of food, so the EU has told farmers they can put their set -aside land back into production.

Here in the UK, Defra has called for an increase in local food production, a call which was greeted with enthusiasm by farmers because since its inception after the foot and mouth debacle, the department has been accused of being more interested in environmental change than in food. But in the two decades of set-aside, areas of uncultivated countryside have proved a boon to wildlife, allowing birds, insects, mammals and rare plants to make a come-back after years of intensive agriculture.

Trying to balance both demands, Defra are now saying farmers should leave 5pc of their land to lie fallow, a suggestion which has both angered and puzzled farmers. NFU chairman president Peter Kendal said yesterday that agriculture has “entered a new era” and it was essential that Britain produced more of its own food.

And the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) fears that the Government might introduce compulsory measures to enforce the 5% rule, irrespective of the state of any land involved, instead of solving the issue within existing Country Stewardship schemes.

CLA President Henry Aubrey-Fletcher said: “For over 12 months we have been calling for a voluntary approach to be developed instead of using legislation in order to encourage farmers to manage the environment alongside food production.

“This would encourage food and environmental security and allow farmers to produce for increasing food demands whilst managing land specifically to benefit the environment.”

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