It is traditional to start any new year by feeling cheerful and optimistic.
Far be it from me, etc, to break with tradition, but the first two weeks of 2011 have more of a feeling of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” than get-up-and-go optimism.
Partly, as for the past two months and more, that is because of the weather. Snow still lingers in nooks and crannies and as long as it lingers I expect, in this cheerful mood, to see more. Frosts vary from sharp to severe, burst and frozen pipes are still a problem, black ice a menace for the unwary and over-confident, tractor and quad work on hillsides potentially dangerous, feeding livestock outside no fun at all.
But the feeling of “we’ve been here before” became even stronger when reading and thinking about what was said at the Oxford farming conference last week. I haven’t been to this annual event – scene setter for the farming year as the organisers like to call it – for several years, but know quite well that as with the Highland show, AgriScot, or any pedigree sale, after five minutes there I’d feel as if I had never been away.
That would be particularly true of Oxford where this year, yet again as at so many conferences in the past, the main topic was farming subsidies.
Summarised briefly, Caroline Spelman, UK Environment Secretary, said that direct subsidies to farmers should be scrapped. Future support payments, if any, should be for environmental and conservation work by farmers. In fact, with a rising world population to feed, supply and demand would mean a big increase in food prices and returns to farmers, so subsidies would be unnecessary.
Not at all, said farmers, direct support payments on agricultural grounds are essential. More pertinently for the long term future of subsidies, Dacian Ciolos, European Union Commissioner for Agriculture, told the Oxford conference the same thing. The need for support payments, for example in Scotland, as indicated in the recent report by Brian Pack and his committee, is shared by most farmers in the 27 member states of the EU, said Mr Ciolos.
Food production, he said, must be at the centre of the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP). He suggested there was no chance of that priority altering during debate about the future of the CAP and the new look for it due to be decided by 2013-14.
That new look is likely to see a move from paying subsidy on the historic basis of what a farm produced in the past to an area-based payment, with variations in payment per hectare depending on land quality. Mr Ciolos also seems to favour a subsidy limit of about £250,000 for any single farm business and paying only those who are actively farming. Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s rural affairs minister, thought Mr Ciolos was on the right lines and Mrs Spelman was not.
Minus the details of subsidy bandied about, this Oxford exchange could have taken place 10, 20 or 30 years ago and probably did. It is the eternal argument about whether farmers have a subsidised lifestyle denied to most competitive businesses, or whether they work hard to make a living against the vagaries of the weather, supermarket taskmasters who make Simon Legree – the brutal slave driver in Uncle Tom’s Cabin – look a softie, volatile world markets and inept politicians, and still only manage to survive because of, in Britain’s case, EU subsidies to farmers of about £4 billion a year.
I confidently expect it to be on the Oxford agenda for next year, and the year after that and indeed for as long as I’m around to take an interest.
I also expect the argument at all levels about the future of the CAP, and a last-minute decision, to follow much the same lines in the next two years or so as every other change in the past 40 years has followed – that is, some changes in detail, little change in its overall complexity, no change in the general thrust that farming will be subsidised in the European Union.
Not least that will be because security of food supplies is important. In this country, we take for granted an ample supply of whatever food we fancy. We are encouraged in that by the increasing grip on our buying by the main supermarkets – in the final quarter of last year, Tesco had a 28 per cent share of our shopping, Asda 16 per cent, Sainsbury’s 15 per cent and Morrisons 11 per cent. If we want it, we can get it.
That isn’t true in some parts of the world. As drought, heat and floods hit farmers in Australia, South America, Russia, China and Pakistan, supplies on the world market of rice and wheat have fallen and prices have risen. In the short term, that is good news for, for example, British wheat growers, not so good for developing countries running short not just of choice, but of anything to eat.
That thought, and the outside possibility of such shortages in Europe some time in the future, must be part of the political debate on the future of the CAP.
But, as ever, for any farmer heading out into where white frost is turning to heavy rain and treacherous conditions underfoot or under wheel, it’s hard to concentrate on the future of world food supplies.