Blaming farmers for flawed policy not fair
Sir, Mr. Dumont’s well researched letter (Herald, 23rd September) concerning farm-related pollution incidents highlights something that should be of wide concern, but misses a point on what we actually receive for the taxes we pay.
It is a forlorn expectation that politicians will provide an answer to the problem. Our politicians do not lead; they follow, happily espousing causes that are popular and which will win them support and votes, but avoiding issues that may not be well received. Taking a stance is not something they do often.
Farmers here may be reduced in numbers, but those that they employ, those who find work and business in the support services and those engaged in the related tourist trades form a significant part of the electorate.
Putting further direct pressure on the agriculture sector could well prove detrimental to political support and our politicians are not known for biting the hands that feed them.
Concerning feeding, high levels of farm pollution and general environmental degradation are the result of a system supposedly operated for the benefit of us, the public, and there is a case for saying that farmers are not to blame — much! Politicians and rulers have long known that hungry peasants are revolting peasants who will not support leaders who make eating a problem. For decades, governments of both hues ran schemes that encouraged farmers to enlarge fields, remove hedges, drain wet ground and move cultivation up the hill, all in the interests of maintaining a food supply.
Production support payments were made through things like the suckler cow and sheep variable premiums to keep the food cheap. Much of what has been done to damage our countryside has been done by our “leaders” for our benefit and at our expense and to blame farmers for the results is not exactly fair.
Despite high levels of support for agriculture, farming incomes have been under constant pressure. A result has been the drive to cut both variable and fixed costs, with resulting increases in farm, herd/flock and machinery sizes, in diversification and in reductions in directly employed labour.
Yet the industrialisation of agriculture has not removed farming from the cycle of dependency and far too many farms cannot show a profit before the support from the public purse is added to the profit-and-loss account.
The inescapable conclusion is that we, the consumers, do not pay a price for our food that reflects properly the cost of production and which gives the farmer a decent return on the investment of his capital and labour. Farmers may be subsidised, but so is the consumer and that is the value for our taxes that Mr. Dumont seeks.
Consider — the proportion of disposable household income spent on food averages between 10 per cent. and 12 per cent. When I was a lad in about 1960, it was a third. The present arrangements release funds to spend on other things. Could we afford to pay more for food and contribute towards the solution of the problem? I think not; not without a fundamental reconfiguration of the system.
How does it work now? Money is taken from the taxpayer by HMG and a large dollop is given to the EU, which spends a lot on paying the Eurocrats who dream up the schemes and rules they pass on to us, making sure they are kept in work. Some of it comes back to the UK through the Common Agricultural Policy, where it is distributed to farmers as pillar one and pillar two support payments. For many farmers, this makes the difference between profit and loss. The folk that buy the things that farmers produce know this and are able to pay them prices below those that are needed to enable the farmer to trade without support.
The buyers know that public support will ensure that the farmer will still be there in business, to be exploited next time round. This helps keep the price of foods in the shops down, which consumers like because it makes more income available to spend through credit cards and it helps maintain company profitability, which in turn supports the share price and keeps the investors in the City of London happy, to a point.
So, we have a system in which the taxpayer pays to support the narrow interest groups in the City, while producing relatively cheap food, a hidden benefit for those who do not pay taxes at all and one which keeps bureaucrats in work. And all the time, the environment is trashed. This is but a symptom of a very flawed arrangement.
Now, with all those vested interests in play, is it likely that there is a general appetite for wholesale change and is any self-interested politician and steward of the nation going to raise his head above the parapet and argue for that change? The question is rhetorical.
Is there a solution? Yes, but it requires some fundamental restructuring and a will for change. Yours etc,