Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Sound bites and spats – everyone’s farming’s new best friend

The perennial autumn exodus from Westminster for party conference season has come to an end with politicians issuing their respective rallying cries to the troops.

Traditional seaside town venues may have been eclipsed by big city locations, but the conference season has nonetheless heralded its usual mix of gossip, spats and witty put-downs.

Against a backdrop of a ‘dangerous new phase’ for the global economy, it came as no surprise to hear the prevailing saga of Britain’s long hard road to economic recovery dominate. But what of the agricultural sector? With the imminent publication of CAP reform proposals, the ongoing debate over tackling bovine TB, food security and sustainability, there was surely plenty to discuss. And everyone it seems is farming’s new best friend.

In the blue corner, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Caroline Spelman. And in the red corner,  Mary Creagh, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Having faced a tirade of criticism from Ms Creagh, Mrs Spelman came out fighting, listing her department’s achievements – how producers had been helped by improvements to the Rural Payments Agency, tackling bovine TB and improved labelling regimes. The Conservatives were described as the Government on the side of farmers, before delegates heard the pledge to find ways of unlocking the potential of the rural economy. On CAP reform, Mrs Spelman also pledged to get a good deal for farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment.

A week earlier, Ms Creagh championed Labour as the party of jobs and growth, standing up for fairness in the countryside and strong rural communities. The Labour conference fringe also cited the need to grow and produce more. Delegates heard that any plan for growth must have a plan for food. They were told how the Labour Party policy review would seek a proper food strategy for each region with a focus on cattle farms in the west and north of England, as well as those in Wales and Scotland.

In Manchester, the Government faced calls to negotiate a CAP better geared to competitive farming with a policy framework to put farmers in England on level competitive terms with farmers elsewhere in the EU. The issue was also raised at the Liberal Democrat conference where we heard how the party and the NFU pledged to work together to secure a fairer CAP for UK farmers, even after the two organisations clashed on the badger cull proposals. Bovine TB and the proposed badger cull again featured at the Labour fringe. Positive and negative aspects of intensive livestock farming also came under the spotlight.

Undoubtedly, all worthy and important issues for the industry and it’s encouraging to see them debated in such a high-profile arena with all parties laying claim to having the industry’s best interests at heart – not exactly a bolt from the blue, or indeed the red or the yellow. Whether the rhetoric translates into more substantial action will remain to be seen.