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Jamie, CAP, and the red tape jungle

Friday 03 April 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has long relished the serious side of the cheeky chappie chef Jamie Oliver, praises his latest stand against the con-trick known as the Common Agricultural Policy, but worries more about Yorkshire Dales hill farmers fighting strangulation by Brussels red tape

THE CULT of the celebrity chef has largely passed me by. They have, in my opinion, made food into a fashion accessory – an exorbitantly expensive fashion accessory – and restaurants places in which to flaunt your wealth and status, even if you are largely lacking in both. Good taste is almost totally absent and that, I am told, often goes for the food too.

I hold one exception to this: Jamie Oliver. His cheeky chappie, Essex-Jack-the-lad persona would normally leave my cold (if not actually nauseous) but behind all that yobbo exuberance he has a very serious side indeed: he wants people, and particularly children, to eat healthy food and, better still, to eat locally produced food.

This is a matter of some importance here in the Yorkshire Dales, because it is a largely agricultural community and our farmers work some of the toughest land in Britain. Our tourist industry it just as important, economically, and that means that the hotels, restaurants, pubs and cafes tend to live or die by the quality of the food they serve.

Both these industries would be far better off, more profitable and much easier and happier to manage, if it weren’t for the malign influences that hover above them like two of the Horseman of the Apocalypse, the European Union and its even darker spirit, that black-hearted, confidence-trickster, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The myriad health and safety laws governing the catering industry barely give time for the chef (or in the Dales case, the owner of a small rural B&B) to boil an egg before going off to study the regulations. And young farmers are quitting the land in their hordes, not because they hate the outdoor life, but because they can no longer cope with the red tape spinning out in endless coils from CAP HQ in Brussels.

These two interests coincided this week when Jamie Oliver took up his latest campaign, making a video for the anti-waste investigators the TaxPayers’ Alliance (details later). The alliance says that the CAP costs British taxpayers £5,300 million in extra food prices – almost £500 per household – but it was the hidden costs which are always buried in official reports that fascinated me.

That red-tape tots up to a staggering £587 million for regulatory burdens, extra social welfare (whatever that is) and duplication of effort by various food safety agencies. That’s a mere £10 a head for every man, woman and child in the country, which would be considered chicken feed if the costs were evenly spread.

But it isn’t: the main burden falls on the dwindling number of farmers and that is why, on the hill farms of the Yorkshire Dales and similar upland areas, youngsters are declining to take over the family farm. They don’t want to be like a farmer contact of mine who, having worked 12-hours a day, seven days a week, on the high fells of Langstrothdale, has to clear away the supper plates and work well into the night filling in CAP forms.

Belatedly this week, the environment department Defra revealed that it was trying to water down some of the latest lunacy from Brussels, the electronic identification of sheep ands goats by implanting them with a memory chip tag that can be read by computer.

billions are being wasted to the cost of every family that puts food on the table in

This is not only a long and laborious process – first try catching the sheep, which range over hundreds of acres of rocky peaks – and in most cases it will have to be done by paid experts who, because they are in short supply, can charge the earth. And very few farmers can afford the computer equipment needed to read the tags when they are in place.

But the whole nonsense is that these regulations were drawn up at the time of the BSE “mad cow” crisis when it was necessary to prevent infected cattle being sold on. It has taken that long for the Brussels bureaucrats to get the scheme off the ground.

But the killer blow is this: in the intervening 20 years or so, it has been proved that sheep cannot get BSE and therefore cannot pass it on to their offspring. In other words, the whole operation is an unnecessary farce – but once the Brussels juggernaut lumbers in action, it is impossible to stop.

Whilst Gordon Brown was – in his own, much ridiculed words – “saving the world” this week by wanting to throw more money at crooked bankers, he should instead be paying his attention to his own backyard. Here billions are being wasted to the cost of every family that puts food on the table in Britain – and driving to despair the hard working, honest farmers who put that food there in the first place.

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