Farmers must reduce reliance on subsidies, warns Minister

ENVIRONMENT Secretary Caroline Spelman has called for farmers to be less reliant on subsidy handouts and rewarded more for the work they do to enhance the countryside.

Mrs Spelman said current rising levels of food prices offered an opportunity to abolish subsidies such as the Single Farm Payment, as well as saying she wanted British agriculture to become more profitable and competitive.

Mrs Spelman also used her first speech as Environment Secretary at the Oxford Farming Conference, one of the calendar's most important agricultural events, to call upon members of the EU to be ambitious during the imminent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Her audience included Dacian Ciolos, Europe's Agriculture Commissioner.

Mrs Spelman said the current Common Agricultural Policy was leading to distorted trade and the undercutting of food production in developing countries, a system she described as "morally wrong".

The Minister also reiterated the Government's commitment to reducing red tape, signalling that the current raft of farm inspections carried out on every UK farm each year could be reduced.

Mrs Spelman said: "Now is the time to make very significant progress towards reducing our reliance on direct payments. Rising global demand for food and rising food prices make it possible to reduce subsidies and plan for their abolition.

"Furthermore we should encourage innovation in the industry, and provide help with environmental measures and combating climate change. Our taxpayers have every right to expect other public goods for the subsidies they pay.

"To continue as we are threatens to snuff out the transition we need towards a market that can sustain EU agriculture in the future. Moreover, the fairer allocation demanded by new member states – with which I have sympathy – threatens to entrench subsidy dependence further.

"This must not happen."

She added she wanted to see less Government control over farming with more power being handed to local organisations and local people, saying she intended to "change the way the department (Defra) works".

"We want to see a greater degree of trust and collaboration when developing and delivering policy," she told delegates.

"This will allow you as an industry to shape your own destiny. Over the coming years we need to increase the competitiveness of the whole UK food chain to help secure an environmentally sustainable and healthy supply of food."

Mrs Spelman also signalled her willingness to work with other G20 Agriculture Ministers on the need for an end to export bans, such as the grain export ban in Russia last summer which contributed to a spike in wheat prices and sparked fears about food prices.

Country Land and Business Association president William Worsley, a Yorkshire landowner, gave his backing to Mrs Spelman's remarks but said much work would still have to be done to ensure a viable future for British farming.

"Mrs Spelman must ensure the structure of farming in Britain is not penalised by the commission's suggestions on capping large payments and restricting payments to narrowly defined 'active farmers'," he said.