Farm subsidies, regulation and trade were all hot topics at the Three Counties Farming Conference farming debate. Olivia Midgley reports from Malvern.
There is no doubt the European Union needs to undergo ‘drastic reform’ whether the UK chooses to stay in or get out, farming leaders told a referendum debate.
Farming Minister George Eustice and UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew clashed in a lively exchange over how the country’s farmers would fare if the UK broke away from the union, but did agree that substantial reform was needed.
Mr Eustice said the UK Government had ‘no romantic attachment’ to the EU and would not rule out leaving, adding it needed to be more competitive, with less regulation.
However, he said there were benefits to operating in a single market.
“Our preference is to reform the EU and then have a referendum to stay in the reformed EU. But we rule nothing out,” Mr Eustice told the Three Counties Farming Conference.
Mr Agnew said ‘40 years ago there was nothing wrong with being in the EU’, when there was very little regulation and prices were good.
However, he said the last 30 years had seen an increase in red tape, with farmers being forced to jump through more hoops to claim their subsidy.
“The money is getting hard to get,” said Mr Agnew, a Norfolk poultry farmer.
“We saw more consultants come along to help us get it. Forms are more complicated to fill in. Agents are filling them in for us.”
He said there was no doubt the ‘slice of cake for agriculture will get smaller’, as the funding pot was divided among ‘too many countries in the EU that probably shouldn’t be there’.
“The farm payment is being diluted as it is being taken by countries that can’t put as much in.”
He warned of more cumbersome regulation and the UK agriculture losing materials such as crop protection products which the EU classed as ‘hazardous’.
Mr Agnew said: “Every product has to pass a safety test, which it should. What we are finding is that we have this subjective test from the green lobby that if they don’t like it, for example GM, then it is kicked into the long grass.”
He said the UK only had to look at the case of neonicotinoids to see how EU rules made it ‘difficult to grow certain crops’.
Graham Redman, partner at business consultants the Andersons Centre, said it was dangerous to think that by leaving the EU ‘all our problems will be solved’.
He urged ‘Brexit’ voters to think carefully about the potential cuts to the UK’s agricultural budget if it broke away and mooted the possibility of farmers being made to do more for their money.
Mr Redman said: “Farming represents only 2 per cent of the UK democratic vote so if 98 per cent wants money spent on the NHS, what will happen then?”
He said other impacts would be a loss of migrant labour, decreasing land values and the increasing bureaucracy from tighter border controls.
Mr Redman added companies were already ‘backing off’ the UK which had built up a reputation for being a ‘gateway to Europe’, allowing non EU countries to import goods to those within the EU.
Mike Gooding, farmer and former chairman of the Oxford Farming Conference, said UK farmers benefited from the EU’s strength when negotiating export deals with other countries.
“Access to market is everything for a manufacturing business. If we were outside the EU we would not have the same access rights and it is already a hassle,” he said.
Mr Gooding questioned whether the UK would place farming as high up the agenda as it stood in the EU and how continued austerity cuts would impact on agriculture’s budget.