Interview with British Farmer and Grower Magazine

Has agriculture been neglected?

I think Labour has devalued agriculture. If you devalue British farming, then you devalue Britain. They created a department in Defra, where they deliberately left out the words ‘farming' and ‘agriculture'. They had a policy that said it didn't matter where we got our food from, that we could just import it. They've saddled an enormous amount of regulation on farming and they treat every farmer as if they were a criminal. But, we're entering a different era, one where farming does matter again.

What would a Conservative government do to ensure that farming really does matter?

What we're not going to do is go back to the age of intervention or subsidising production directly - I think most people accept that that's not the right way to support farming, although, of course, there will still be billions of pounds worth of public support for British agriculture in years going forward, and we shouldn't forget that. But what we can do is enable farmers to farm is reduce the burden of regulation, be much more focused on outcomes rather than processes, and recognise that farms are businesses and they have to make money.

We would recognise the government's responsibility for animal health, and that means facing serious animal health issues, such as dealing with bovine TB. We would ensure that we have the science, technology and skills to raise productivity and increase our competitiveness and we would make sure that there is a fair market - a level-playing field across Europe. And we would ensure, in a market where the consumer is king, that they're getting the right information - that's why I set up the honest food campaign, for country of origin labelling, so we could put an end to the completely unacceptable practice of meat being brought in from other countries, and passed off as British, when it's produced to lower standards than our own farms. 

How would you support farmers to invest for the long-term?

The average age of farmers is high, and it's going up. We need to reverse that trend. The skills agenda is vital to that. But confidence is imperative - we need to make sure that people want to join this industry - part of that will flow from the sense that farming is important again, and that there are opportunities. Also, the single farm payment is there to assist farmers to get closer to the market - it won't last forever, but I think it will exist in some form after 2013 - so that should give farmers more confidence as they try to adapt their businesses. We need to be clear-sighted about what government can and should do. At the end of the day, farmers have to sell what the market will buy. That's the bottom-line.

How important is agriculture in tackling climate change?

Agriculture will have to play its part. There are some things that farming must do - but equally some of those things represent opportunities - dealing with farm waste with AD, for example. What I have been critical of is ill-informed campaigns that have criticised farming because of methane emissions from cattle, or argue that eating meat is an inefficient use of resources. Those campaigns are both damaging to the British livestock industry and also to the cause of dealing with climate change.

Biofuels - part of problem or solution?

I'm keener on energy from waste, as a solution. Biofuels have a place, but I am concerned about the rush into biofuels as a fad, when you can't actually justify their use on environmental grounds - as, of course, we will need land to grow food. I do accept that there are good and bad biofuels - so providing we're talking about next generation biofuels, then they have a role. But I've always said I prefer the focus on waste generation - as that's a win-win for farmers and the environment.

What's your view of the CFE?

We strongly supported the voluntary approach and we were very critical of the notion of compulsion - we were pleased when the government relented. It's important that we make CFE work and that it delivers, and that farmers participate wholeheartedly. The challenge for us is to raise production sustainably, to live and farm within our environmental means. Farming would be making a serious mistake if it turned its back on environmental issues.

What should be the role of science and technology?

We can't feed 6.5 billion people properly at the moment, and we will have to feed in the region of nine billion in less than 30 years time. That will require a doubling of food production at a time where changing diets and greater affluence will increase the demand for meat and dairy products. And we will have to do that against the background of climate change and pressures on land, so we will need science to help us deliver. While there will need to be spending cuts at Defra, I am very conscious of two issues - animal health and science. And we will seek to protect the science budget as far as we can. However, I can't make any commitments beyond that - it would be irresponsible to do so.

What inhibits British farming's competitiveness?

Regulation - we can't ask farmers to get closer to the market and then tie their arms behind their backs. I'd like a desk in the secretary of state's office, where every form that lands on the farmer's table is placed at the same time - as one farmer joked, it'll be a very big table. Politicians talk about deregulating, but I'm deadly serious about it.

Can the supply chain improve?

Some supermarkets are better than others - but they are too powerful. The code of practice and the ombudsman are needed to guard against abuses. We have to recognise that we are in a competitive market, and in my book, a properly functioning market doesn't have too much dominance on one side. We should also look at whether we have strong enough co-ops, and how we're organising them in comparison to our EU partners.

The British farming industry has a huge number of natural advantages, in terms of our soil, skills, the quality of our stock and our experience. The other thing we can be optimistic about is the fact that growing food is back on the agenda, and there is a strong interest in local food and provenance.

What is your position on responsibility and cost-sharing?

There has to be responsibility and cost-sharing and, properly designed, it could bring real benefits to the industry. Clearly, the next government is not going to be in the position to write large cheques for farming, but I don't think it's right that the government, which itself has some share of the responsibility for animal health outbreaks, turns around to the industry, and says: "By the way, we were responsible for some of this, but we want you to foot more of the bill." I can understand how that antagonises farmers. Current proposals seem to be loading cost, but not sharing responsibility. We need to do it on the basis of partnership, and the government has got to deliver on its side of the bargain - that's why delivering on TB is really important.

How would you fight bovine TB?

The growth of bovine TB is completely unacceptable - it's imposing a growing cost on the taxpayer and over 40,000 cattle a year are being slaughtered, which brings about huge hardship and stress. We can't go on like this. It's no good waiting for a vaccine - the oral vaccine could be years away and no one knows how effective it will be. We need a comprehensive set of measures to deal with bovine TB. That includes increased testing of cattle, developing a test for infected badgers and a carefully organised cull in target areas - and we have been working with the industry to see how this could be achieved. We take this very seriously. Nobody wants to have to kill badgers, but we have an overriding imperative to deal with this situation and make the tough decision.

What is the future of CAP?

We want an outcome that's fair for the British taxpayer and good for our farmers and the environment, and that helps our farming industry to be competitive. 2013 is a long way off, but the debate has started. And the UK needs to be in there - meetings have been held without the British at the table and we've got to stop that. I think there will be some transfer of funding through the second pillar - not just for environmental schemes, but also to assist in rural development and therefore helping farm businesses' development - so we shouldn't see this as a negative.

How important is it for the CAP to be a ‘common agricultural policy'?

It must be common. We've said there should be more co-financing, but compulsory co-financing, and that would be in the British interest. But we don't want a policy that enables some member states to undermine the common market. Most farmers see the benefits of being in the common market - but providing that it is common and the playing-field remains level.

Anything you would like to add?

The performance of the RPA has been a disgrace. It needs a fundamental shake-up. Jim Paice will chair the RPA board to achieve some accountability, so that farmers will know where the buck stops. Secondly, we will reverse the government's weakening of the protection of the most fertile agricultural land. And we will reinstitute the protection of grade one and two agricultural land from development, in all but exceptional circumstances, and that will symbolise the value we place on farming - it is a resource for future generations.

Why vote Conservative?

Because we believe in British farming, we value agriculture, and we have a team who care about farming. And, because we intend to put the ‘F' of farming back into Defra.

Michelle Taylor