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Has the dream of "green" farming turned Brown

Friday 23 November 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, more bewildered than ever by the latest bad news from Brussels, wonders if "green" plans for our agriculture have been ditched by Gordon Brown?

THERE IS a particularly irritating ad. on television at the moment. It shows a young man tearing his hair out in frustration trying to buy car insurance and the name of the company showing it is confused.dot.com. I have spent most of this week feeling much the same - because of more bungling in Brussels.

Now I know that the EU and CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy, are one of the most boring conceptions ever dreamed up by mankind. I know that the EU fisheries policy is even more ludicrous, as fishermen from Whitby and Scarborough are being forced to throw perfectly good cod back into the sea because of EU quotas.

doomed by the EU
Doomed by the EU?

But if we truly love the English countryside, we are beholden to at least try to keep some sort of a track on the machinations of the EU bureaucrats and their even more devious political masters - or, behind a barrier of smoke and mirrors, they will surely cheat us out of anything we value.

This I have taken this as read for the 30-odd years since we became members of the so-called Common Market. Some of our "allies" in the great European experiment - the French in particular - will steal anything British that is not nailed down. Along with the Germans, we have been the great Euro Piggy Bank into which everyone else digs their sticky fingers (which is probably why the official accountants have refused to approve the Union's accounts for a decade or more).

But this week, during some mind-numbing complexities being floated across the Channel, I smelt a different rat on the run. For there is every indication that long-standing arrangements meant to turn British farming "green" have been secretly painted Brown? Gordon Brown that is.

For several years now, this column has been applauding efforts to turn us away from intensive agriculture, which since the 1950s had been pumping unwanted chemical pesticides and weed-killers into our fields and potentially dangerous hormones into our livestock. The race to produce more and more food - much of which in the old days was not wanted - did incalculable damage to our countryside and its wildlife.

Thousands of miles of hedgerow were grubbed out, great rivers polluted, heather moors stripped by over-grazing and animal favourites like the otter, the skylark, the cuckoo, the water vole and many other species were driven to the point of extinction.

Having reported on this downward spiral since 1960, I was therefore delighted when serious politicians - even Tony Blair, who had little interest in the countryside - began to call for more sustainable agriculture. The way to encourage this, it was widely agreed, was to switch subsidies away from production to farmers who would undertake projects to conserve the landscape and its wild creatures.

Many of our larger estates are incredibly supportive of environmentally friendly agriculture

Like everything else that the EU handles, this progressed at a snail's pace and with enormous complexity - it was once said that only three people in the whole of Europe fully understood the workings of the notorious CAP - but it seemed to be going in the right direction. Until this week, that is.

Then it was revealed that Britain is trying to block plans to cut CAP subsidies to the great landowners - including the Queen - and divi up more to smaller units like Yorkshire Dales hill farms. The plan caused outrage (see news, Tuesday and Thursday) and the Country Land and Business Association asked "Is this the end of the English countryside as we know it?"

Now I have some sympathy with some, but not all, of the CLA's views. Many of our larger estates are incredibly supportive of environmentally friendly agriculture - the Yorkshire Dales estate of the Duke of Devonshire at Bolton Abbey is a glowing example. But the cereal producing "prairie farmers" of East Anglia have desecrated thousands of acres of our countryside and, with world wheat prices soaring, could make huge profits without any subsidy at all.

All this is not particularly new. What is puzzling is this total U-turn in Government policy. Insiders say that such a change would harm our more productive farms (i.e., those in East Anglia). In other words, high finance has usurped the green conscience. Now why could that be?

As the government lurches from one financial crisis after another, and our huge, inefficient bureaucracies suck up more of the national income, has Gordon Brown - who has added "waste" to the normal "tax and spend" habits of his socialist predecessors - decided we must claw some of our cash back? Will green farming be the first victim? Watch this space.

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