•It was inevitable that the latest Common Agricultural Policy reform proposals would be full of contradictions. Three new principles have been introduced and while there will be horse trading on the extent and details of these, I feel that none of them will be discarded. In no particular order they are capping, greening and interference in cropping rotations. At first glance, capping would seem appealing.
Very large farms will have their payments capped at a certain level, instead of a per acre payment for every acre. Businesses affected by this will attempt to re-structure one way or another to maintain subsidy income. The European Union says it will investigate and disregard arrangements that it considers are put in place purely to harvest subsidy. Someone will have to judge whether the splitting of a business was for genuine reasons or not and lawyers will become involved. These individuals will probably benefit more than the taxpayer.
The greening measures really do fly in the face of reality. Recently, the world population reached seven billion and, in 2007 and 2010, we witnessed dramatic price increases for cereal crops as supply struggled to meet demand. The EU's reaction to this is to threaten to penalise farmers with 30 per cent of their payment unless they place 7 per cent of their land into "ecological focus areas". We are told that these greening measures are to tackle climate change and that they will somehow improve the world's weather. One thing I can predict with more certainty is that they will increase the world's hunger.
My own circumstances happen to be very typical. On my 400 acres, a 7 per cent set aside represents 28 acres of un-cropped land and while I do have some hedges, ponds and copses - they might add up to just five acres. I also have areas of land shaded by trees, small plots of land in awkward corners and areas of particularly poor soil - which are only marginally profitable to farm. These might add up to another five acres, leaving 18 acres of good land to be removed from crop production. But this second batch of five acres has already been entered into a "stewardship agreement" with the government on a three-year rolling contract, whereby it is not cropped and is managed in such a way as to benefit the environment.
A fee is paid to me for this activity. Farmers whose agreements need renewing this year are now in a dilemma. If they re-enter the land in the scheme they will have to find an additional 7 per cent on top of this to avoid the 30 per cent penalty, and this will bite into good productive land. It seems highly unlikely that they will be paid twice for the same service. So, to play it safe, they will not renew their stewardship contracts whilst the CAP negotiations rumble on for the next two years. Meanwhile, the environment will suffer. I made this clear to the European Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos at a meeting of the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on November 7.
The intention to interfere in cropping rotations can only be described as stupid. Farmers know exactly what their land grows best and which crops are in most demand. This means that on heavy land wheat and rape predominate, while on lighter land barley and sugar beet are the favourites. The EU is insisting that we must grow at least three crops on each farm within minimum and maximum limits. The accusation is that we are guilty of "monoculture" despite the afore-mentioned stewardship schemes being present on nearly every single farm.
This proposal will actually hit small farmers hardest as they are the ones who use larger farmers as contractors to perform tractor operations on their land. In order to keep charges down, the larger farmers encourage their clients to adopt a "whole farm rotation" so that the entire farm is rape one year, wheat the next and barley the third and so on. In the meantime, a neighbour in a similar position will host a different crop in the cycle. Splitting the farm into a multitude of crops each year means that operations need to be conducted at different times and tractors spend more time on the public roads running from task to task. The client farmer will be obliged to pay for these inefficiencies through higher charges if he wishes to maintain his CAP payment. This will also increase carbon emissions. I listened to farmers' reactions to a briefing on all these proposals at a National Farmers Union meeting recently and was interested to hear the word "Stalinist" mentioned two or three times.
Stuart Agnew MEP is the UK Independence Party's spokesman on agriculture and is a member of the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee