There is a disturbing tendency among some "eurosceptics" to advocate
a complete abolition of all farming subsidies. A recent Sunday
Telegraph editorial ("A farewell to farms", 29/8/99) rehearsed this
line, claiming that "the ultimate goal for any sensible policy on
agriculture," was to ensure a farming industry that could function
without taxpayer support. It complained that EU membership prevented
this goal. Well, of course, it would be nice to have an industry that
did not have to rely on taxpayer support; but how do we achieve it? The
above editorial resigns itself to the economics of the day, advocates
the abolition of subsidies and appears content to throw the industry to
the wolves. It amounts to a policy of managed decline based on
survival of the richest.
What is the logic of this? No doubt, Britain would have a very
economic farming industry indeed, if all land were converted into one
giant ranch owned by one person. However, even then, Britain would only
be able to compete at this level until France or Germany did the same
thing. That's the problem with this approach. You keep chasing your tail
for greater and greater economies of scale.
Therefore, even if we leave the EU, we will still have to challenge
the advocates of this approach. Their mentality is totally unrelated
to any socially conscious purpose - it doesn't care about the
rural community; and devoid of any intention to challenge the
economic status quo - it doesn't question why agriculture should be
yet another British industry to die. It doesn't question an economic
system which is centralising the green fields of Britain in fewer and
fewer hands. It doesn't question why an industry which once provided a
living for millions can now only provide a living for thousands. What
is going on?
As Mike Rowbotham points out in The Grip of Death: A Study
of modern money, debt slavery and destructive economics (Charlbury,
Oxfordshire: Jon Carpenter Publishing, 1998) aggregate income from the
whole farming industry was three times higher in real terms in 1948 than
in 1990. In other words, farmers were able to make a living three times
more easily in 1948 than today (p.115). This has happened as the prices
farmers receive have decreased, as costs of production, and the amount
of debt carried by farmers have risen. In 1985, 40% of all income
from farming in the UK went to pay bank interest charges. Today
it is around 25%. The overall level of indebtedness in the industry
is vast. No wonder farmers need subsidies when they have such huge debt
commitments to meet. Solutions to this indebtedness must be found.
Where there's a will, there's a way... a policy of managed decline
is not acceptable.
Firstly, we must affirm the New Zealand model is not for
The following letter was published in The Daily Telegraph of
1st October 1999
from the Earl of Rosebery, South
Queensferry, West Lothian:
Christopher Fildes is wrong to say that British farming could copy
that of New Zealand, where subsidies and controls have been cut
(Business News, Sept. 25). There are two fundamental differences in our
New Zealand has low-cost, export-led agriculture, helped by the
fact that, in its mild climate, winter feeding is rarely required.
Before the subsidies were cut off, New Zealand had a high-cost, highly
unionised meat processing and exporting industry. The farmers managed to
bypass this and set up their own efficient system which passed a
reasonable proportion of the available income back to the farmers. This
could not work in this country as there is now no way to bypass the big
supermarkets, since planning restrictions and cost considerations would
prevent farmer-led co-operatives from being set up.
The Monopolies and Mergers Commission would prevent any farming
co-operative from becoming powerful enough to influence prices - look
what happened to the Milk Marketing Board.
For a market economy to work, there must be curbs on monopoly buyers
as well as monopoly sellers, and a market for exports, including live
exports, must be available, otherwise the price mechanism does not
The second point is that New Zealanders do not have the animal
welfare curbs that we have. This allows them to ranch their sheep
and cattle, taking little or no care of them and accepting unburied dead
Secondly, we must build upon key objectives:
This would also save enough to fund a new set of support mechanisms, which could be targeted towards a more
sustainable programme which encourages small farms, young farmers, local production and distribution networks,
organic production, and policies which protect the environment.
- Maintain a British farming industry, as a good in itself.
- Sustain the rural economy as a whole.
- Put the national interest first. This means we must leave the EU.