Politicians will be warned against making spending cuts that would damage farming as part of efforts to plug the UK’s financial black hole at a conference in Birmingham today.
Speaking ahead of this week’s annual National Farmers’ Union conference, the organisation’s president Peter Kendall said agriculture was vital to UK food security and to the economy.
Mr Kendall said whoever won the general election and had to tackle the country’s financial woes should work with farmers to find savings where money was being wasted, such as in delivery of EU subsidies, and not just make big cuts in agricultural spending.
And he described a proposed “livestock tax” on farmers to pay for animal disease control as a “head-on mugging for money”.
The annual conference in Birmingham will hear from Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert, who will be launching the Tories’ manifesto for agriculture, and Lib Dem environment spokesman Tim Farron.
Mr Kendall said there was a growing recognition of the importance of farming among politicians.
In the future, farmers will have to produce more food with less inputs, in the face of a changing climate, a growing world population and scarcity of resources.
“We want government to realise that it runs a real risk, if it cuts away at agricultural spending, of damaging farming’s ability to meet those big challenges of the future,” Mr Kendall said.
And he warned that MPs would have a fight on their hands if farmers were expected to “pick up the can for crass inefficiencies”.
Mr Kendall criticised plans to bring in a tax on livestock to pay for disease control - saying the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) did not even have a handle on the costs of tackling the issue.
And he said the £1,740 spent processing each single farm payment under the Common Agricultural Policy in England - compared to just £285 in Scotland - showed how much money was currently wasted in agriculture and where savings could be made.
The divisive issue of bovine TB and whether politicians should give the go-ahead for a cull of badgers, which carry the disease, is likely to dominate the NFU conference again this year.
Mr Kendall said: “The spread of TB is so profound and serious through the countryside that this is becoming for many of our members a defining issue in the election.
“It’s become such a restriction on people’s ability to farm, to produce milk and beef, that it’s becoming a defining issue.
The NFU president also said he wanted to see “thoughtful reform” of the EU system of subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Subsidies should not just be to ensure land is managed for the good of the environment, and are needed to help farmers get on a more secure financial footing, he said.
Mr Kendall said there was recognition that regulation was “starting to drown” farmers, with policymakers increasingly allowing self-regulation in agriculture.
An example of this was the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, in which the Government let farmers develop a voluntary scheme to replace the benefits for wildlife of now-abandoned EU rules on leaving land set-aside.
But the challenge was now to balance the costs of self-regulation with having rules imposed from central government, Nr Kendall said.
Mr Farron will tell the conference the animal tax is an “insulting attempt” by the Government to pass the buck for disease preparation.
The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman will set out proposals for a powerful food market regulator, claiming Labour and Tory plans to introduce a supermarket ombudsman are just a fig leaf.
And he will defend direct farm payments under the CAP but will urge reform to cut waste and strengthen the farming.